aha moment, being a teacher, writing

I Am Not a Writer – On Developing Student Writing Identity

I have taught writing for 8 years.  8 years of outlines, of brainstorms, of on-demand writing.  Of peer editing and feedback cycles.  Of writer’s notebooks to mine for ideas.  Of blank stares and “I have nothing to write.”  And never once did I think deeply about the writing process.

I knew I had to write with my students.  I knew I had to develop my own writing in front of them.  I knew that writers needed different conditions to spark creativity.  And yet, we still followed a pretty linear process, a one path to greatness type of ideal.  We write different pieces but all for the same purpose.

This summer, I was asked to speak out loud while I wrote to be part of a series of videos called Wisconsin Writes.  I was asked to write in front of a camera and a person and just talk as I wrote, providing a running commentary on how my process worked.  It was awkward.  It was stilted.  But it was also enlightening.  That is not the writing process I teach.

Yesterday Jacqueline Woodson spoke about her writing process.  An offhand comment about how she doesn’t outline but just keeps asking “what if.”  Sees where the story takes her and then jumps from piece to piece when she gets bored.  She knows there is a story, she just doesn’t know what it is.  That is not the writing process I teach.

Last night, Donalyn Miller and I spoke about writing and her words sit with me still; there is not one process to writing, there are many.  I know this as a writer myself, so why have I forgotten it so often in the classroom?

Our job as teachers who write is to help students uncover their writing identity.  To show them many different ways of writing and constantly asking them to find what works for them.  To ask questions rather than dictate a path.  To have them reflect on the very creative process that they undergo.  We should not just be assessing their final product but instead support them uncovering their process.  Because their process will be distinctly unique much like ours is.

So as I turn my eyes on developing writer identities, there are a few things I must keep in mind.

All writers are writers.  We say this all the time but if we do not give them opportunities to feel like successful writers then they will never believe us.  So writing must be bigger than one thing.  Writing must be about thinking like a writer, feeling a writer, and not just producing.

All writers need time.  We tend to think that writing is only happening when students are physically writing, but most of us know that writing is also thinking, mulling, abandoning and coming back to our work.  That writing is an unseen process most of the time and the actual act of writing is the product of something so much bigger.  So why do we expect students to write right away?

All writers need choice.  Not just in what they write, but also how they write.  That choice can be whether it is typed or handwritten, where they physically write but also who they write for.  Different audiences require different thought processes.

All writers need ownership.  We expect students to want to share their writing all the time, whether with others through peer editing, feedback or simply celebrating their writing by making it public.  But not all written work needs to be shared.  Some things are just for the authors and that is to be celebrated as well.

All writers need to end it.  Why must every piece be finished?  Why must every piece be edited?  When we tell students that they can start something and when they feel it is done, it is done, it gives them courage to write more.  It gives them ownership over completion rather than asking the teacher whether something is done or not.

All writers write differently.  Much like my writing process is one that only suits me, the writing process of my students is uniquely theirs.  Yet we keep squeezing them into a box of how writers write and then wonder when their writing isn’t powerful.

All writers need self-discovery.  We need to lead conversations where students can put into words what their process is. So using videos of writers speaking about their process gives us a common language and starting point to talk about their writing process.  Our writing instruction needs to encompass all aspects of writing, not just the visible part of it, but the thinking, the journey, the progress.  We need to bring that into the open so that students can understand what it really means to write.

All students need questions.  When someone says they are not a writer, we must ask “Why?”  And if they are not sure then keep asking questions.  Most students say they are bad writers because they cannot spell.  Because they cannot come up with ideas.  Because writing is for other kids.  But writing is bigger than that.  Writing is about finding a way to express the thoughts that jumble our heads.  Not just being a great speller. Or being like others.

I have a long way to go.  I have a long way to teach.  I have some big conversations to have with my students and I cannot wait.  We are all different yet our difference is what makes us unique writers.  What makes our writing powerful.

3 thoughts on “I Am Not a Writer – On Developing Student Writing Identity”

  1. The writing procrastination may look like small potatoes, but nothing can be more painful than watching the blank page, meaningless sentences or find out that you work is almost identical to previously written text. With these incredible tips above the procrastination can be beaten, but what about uniqueness of writing? I like your idea about self-discovery! However, it seems to me, under the impression left by famous authors, we tend to plagiarize subconsciously. The consequences of this are not so good. The thing is that this collapse is easily avoidable by following things: listening to the friend’s or experts’ in editing opinion; the use of plagiarism checker Unplag and finally remember ‘be yourself, no matter what they self’. The most essential advice I ever heard was ‘Keep your own voice in writing. Don’t be false to yourself and your readers’.

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