Our son Oskar hates writing, truly hates everything about it. From the holding of the pencil, to the forming of the letter, to the message itself; there is no love lost here. Last week he was asked by his school to write his name on all twenty Valentine’s day cards he will be handing out to his friend. For a week this has been the ongoing conversation…
“Mom, this is like 100 cards, did you really count them?”
“Mom, I only have five friends, so I really only need to write five…”
“Mom, my friends know that I have a “K” in my name so I don’t need to write these letters…”
“Mom, I want to be a job that has no writing in it…”
Oskar is four years old. I am truly not worried, not yet, after all, he is at the beginning of his writing journey. Holding a pencil is hard work. Forming letters that others can read is hard work. Sticking with something more than five minutes is hard work. Yet…
I see his words echoed by some of my students, my twelve and thirteen-year-olds. Not just the boys, the girls too. We hate writing, writing is hard, please don’t make us write. And they don’t, they fight me every step of the way. They write something once and then never return to it. They do not care that it doesn’t make sense, they do not care that words are misspelled, they do not care that their writing is sometimes terrifyingly simple. There is no love for the fine art of writing because as they tell me, they will never be writers when they grow up. So I wonder, what can we do to protect the love of writing and are we doing enough? Are we offering students a chance to feel like writers rather than see it as something to just get through?
And I get it; how many adults identify as writers? How many adults feel like they know how to write well? How many teachers see themselves as writers who would quickly identify as readers? Why is it that this incredible method of communication seems to have had all of the joy sucked right out of it? So I wonder, what can we do to protect the love of writing and are we doing enough? Are we offering students a chance to feel like writers rather than see it as something to just get through?
I know we preach about free choice in writing as if this simple change will fix anything, yet even when given free choice I have students who prefer not to. Who would like the choice to be that they do not have to write. So what else can we do beyond giving them time? Giving them freedom?
We can speak to authors.
Through Skype we have had wonderful conversations with authors who have told us all about their writing process. Not only has this given the students a deeper connection with the very books they read, but it has also given them a chance to realize that not every writer felt like a writer as a child. That not every writer gets great ideas with no work behind them. That writing is hard work and something that even those who have gotten a book published say they get frustrated by it. This opportunity to speak to those who make it seem so easy has cemented lessons that I have tried to teach for years; writing is hard work, writing does not always come easy, and it is okay to doubt yourself as long as you don’t give up.
We can find out why.
I used to assume that I knew why my students didn’t like to write, after all, it seemed to almost always be the same reasons. I stopped assuming several years ago when a child told me they hated to write because they did not want a peer to edit it. They had not written a single word yet. So now I ask, and we should all ask; what about it do you not like? When did you start not liking it? What has helped? What has hurt? What small steps can we do to make it better if even just a little bit? Sometimes they don’t know, other times they do, but we don’t assume to know the answer, so we always ask.
We can sit in silence.
Too often we assume writing must commence the moment an assignment is given and yet those of us who do write regularly know how much writing happens before we actually write any sentences. I need silence to write. I need inspiration. I need to find something that is worth writing about. This is where free choice is so powerful in our writing curriculum, but so is wait-time, quiet, and a way to manipulate the learning environment to work for the individual. My students know that when they write they are expected to make the room work for them, not the other way around, so they do. And they sometimes stare into space for a really long time, but almost always, they finally start to write. And those that don’t? Well, they are a conversation waiting to happen.
We can provide self-chosen support.
I used to partner students up by need, by whatever skill they needed to work on. Now I ask my students to please find a partner or two to work with as they process through their writing, rather than artificially pair them up. Why? Because sharing your writing is a vulnerable process. Sharing your writing and asking someone for feedback can make or break future writing. Because when I write I self-select those that will see my unfinished work so that I know that they are judging the work and not me.
We can give breaks.
Writing is hard work. Even as 7th graders, some of my students do not have the stamina to do writing well for more than fifteen minutes. That is ok, as long as we are aware of it. For my most ardent non-writers we try to give breaks, sometimes through conferencing, but others time just a movement or water break, so they can shake their hands, clear their minds, and recapture the energy they were feeling before.
We can be honest.
I speak about my own writing process with my students as we explore our writing lives. I speak of the frustration, of how hard it can be to receive criticism, of how I get in writing slumps, how I seek out inspiration. I tell them that there are millions of ways to write, that none of them are perfect, but that what matters is that they find their own path. That they experiment, that they explore, that they do not give up even when they are certain that writing will never be anything they actually will need for anything. I ask for their concerns and complaints, they share their needs so that I can try to adapt the writing curriculum to fit their needs.
We can make it matter.
My students rarely write in isolation. Their bigger projects almost always extend beyond the classroom to make a difference in the lives of others. To make a mark in the world around them. Sharing our writing globally has helped some students realize the direct impact that their words can have on others. Giving them tools such as blogging or simply sharing through Google docs, have made them realize that what they write can matter to others beyond our classroom walls. That their opinion may shape the opinion of someone else. That what they write may provoke an emotion in others. It is not the ultimate solution, there are still children who fight me, who fight themselves, every step of the way. But it’s a start. It is a way to try to make writing seen as something important, rather than just something we do in school, never to be applied to the real world.
When Oskar finished his twenty Valentine’s Day cards tonight, they were a bit of a mess. The “O’s” looked pretty good but everything else was illegible. He had a smile on his face and so we gathered them up and put them in his backpack. We have a long way ahead of us yet for him to like writing more. We picked our battle tonight, knowing that if we had asked him to re-do them all, the damage to his already strained relationship with writing would have been significant. Perhaps this is my last advice for tonight then, spoken more to myself than others; one battle at a time. One hurdle at a time. Small successes matter, even if we haven’t completely changed a child’s mind just yet. As they say in Denmark; mange bække små gør en stor å.”
If you like what you read here, consider reading any of my books; the newest called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like infuse global collaboration into their curriculum, was just released. If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students. I am currently working on a new literacy book, called Passionate Readers and it will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge. I also have a new book coming out December, 2017 . Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.