Author Frances Dowell Leads Sixth-Graders in Eight-Week Writing Workshop

Story by Kathy McPherson

Frances Dowell has been writing since she learned how to put words on paper — poems, short stories, essays, novels, nonfiction. The little girl who grew up to become an award-winning author remembers writing “500 brillant beginnings that were never finished.” That’s one of the reasons why she is so passionate about helping young writers “get through that first draft all the way to the end."

Sixth grade writing workshop

Photo by Sarah Jane Tart

For more than 15 years, Dowell has been talking with Durham Academy sixth-graders about her life as a writer. Her novel Dovey Coe and many of her other books are favorites of Durham Academy students. This fall, Dowell turned the page from talking about her writing to coaching sixth-graders through an eight-week writing workshop. 

This is the second year of the writing workshop, and while pandemic-imposed restrictions mean Dowell talks with students on Microsoft Teams rather than on campus, the format allows Dowell to interact with all sixth-graders, including those whose families have opted for remote-only learning.

The eight-week writing workshop is based on Dowell’s newest book, How to Build a Story  … or, The Big What If. She takes students through the writing process, and begins by having them brainstorm “what if” scenarios.

“It’s something students love to do,” said sixth-grade language arts teacher Julie Williams. “Everybody generates their very own unique ideas. My idea might be ‘What if I could fly?’ and then I start my story around that idea. Students start writing drafts and Frances is meeting with them and talking them through these steps, one-on-one or as a group.”

Sixth-grader Ethan Asnani was enthusiastic about the workshop. Some of his “what if” ideas were “What if I was as small as a pea?” “What if I could teleport?” and “What if a bug was a human?”

“This all helped me lead up to a human as a mosquito story,” Ethan said. “In writing workshop, I learned that thinking about ideas and coming up with them is challenging, but to keep thinking and you will have an epiphany about a very exciting idea.”

Valen Moore learned he didn’t need a big elaborate plan to write a story: “You can just write. Ms. Dowell gave us a very loose structure and I like learning with my characters and surprising myself as well as them.”

Storytelling is a big part of the language arts curriculum. Williams said sixth-graders read a wide range of stories from cultures all over the world. “Then it's sort of a natural progression to say we all have a story to tell. … We start to realize that we have something important to say as students, and I have stories that I want to tell. How do I get the skills needed to tell those stories in a way that people will want to read them?”

Sixth grade writing workshop board

Photo by Julie Williams

Williams said Dowell encourages students “to start with the big action scene, something to get your reader curious, make sure your character's doing something, and then go to the background information, then the big problem and then a plan. There's a cool part on sticks and stones that are part of the protagonist’s journey. She makes it very kid-friendly and very approachable. … As a veteran teacher of 26 years, I've really not worked with a format quite as effective as this one in terms of helping students along.”

Young writers, Dowell said, are “really good at getting started and really good at not finishing.” Writing takes time, and she applauds Durham Academy for emphasizing writing and giving students time to write. Dowell’s son Jack graduated from DA in 2017, and her younger son, Will, is a senior this year. “I've been reading his college essays, and he's such a good writer. I really think that's because he's been writing at DA since kindergarten.” 

Practice is important for all writers, and students need to take themselves seriously as writers and realize that practice will pay off. “One of the great things about writing is you can be a kid — and as long as you are writing, you're a writer,” Dowell said. “You don't have to get permission or a license or anything. The other thing that I really emphasize to young writers is process and that you have to revise, which nobody likes to hear.”

The same is true with Dowell’s own writing, and the multiple drafts and revisions she goes through with her editor at Simon & Schuster publishing. “The great thing about that is it's freeing. DA kids can be very ambitious and sometimes have very high standards for themselves. To say, guess what, you can make mistakes. You can even fail with your first draft. It's not a disaster, it's just part of the process.”

Sixth grade writing workshop

Photo by Sarah Jane Tart

Caroline Bohanek and Millie Hanks are familiar with that process. They were among a small group of rising sixth-graders who took a writing workshop with Dowell last summer.

Caroline thinks the hardest part about writing is “when you reach a point where your story just doesn’t seem exciting anymore, or you just have no clue what’s going to happen next. The story’s going so great … and then you just seem to reach an invisible wall.” 

For Millie, “writing a story is a gateway to many things. Writing is a place where you can create things that no one has even imagined before. It’s your opportunity to make your characters do things that you have always wanted to do. It’s a beautiful thing to write a story, and I love it when things tie together in a story. To me, I can’t go a day without writing at least something!”