“Do we have to write?” He looks at me and awaits my answer. I know he wants me to say no, but instead, I nod. Every day. Just try. It’ll get better. “But I hate writing…” and the kids around him nod. So many kids not considering themselves writers. So many kids who write simply because school tells them to. And I see it every time I assign a story project. I see it when they write summaries of stories rather than an actual story. I see it when they fiddle with their papers, break their pencils or write one line. We hate writing, and there is nothing you can do about it.
And yet….writing is stories. Writing is our past and our future. Writing has the power to break us apart or put us together. So when our students tell us that they hate writing, it is usually not the writing itself they hate, it is everything attached to it. All of the tasks we add in with writing to make sure they know how to write. To make sure they can write. And I wonder, once again, in our eagerness to create students who can write are we, instead, producing students who won’t?
So what can we do within our writing instruction to reignite or protect the writer that lingers within each child? What are ways we can help them see that writing is something we need as human beings, and not just because the teacher told us to?
We hear their truths.
Much like we must uncover what protects or demolishes their love of reading, we must ask the hard questions about writing too. Why do you think you are not a writer? When is writing hard? When is writing amazing? How can I be a better teacher of writing for you? And then we take those truths with us, we unpack them and then we reflect on our teaching practices; what have we done that have done damage? How can we navigate all of our requirements without doing irreparable harm?
We make it a priority.
I know we do a lot of writing but how much of that is process writing; summarizing, essays, analysis, informational writing. Where is the creative writing? I know when I taught 5th grade it was the final unit of the year. If we got to it, that is. Why not start with them finding their writer’s voice. Tell them to write a story, either real or fictional. and reconnect them with their storytelling skills. Begin the year with free writing and maintain it throughout the year. Don’t save it until the end of the year when we can have done so much damage already.
We give them time.
We cannot create writing opportunities in our classrooms without dedicated time. And I don’t mean the writing instruction slot where they are working on their assigned project, but free writing time, where they are encouraged to write whatever they want. Free writing time every day so that they get in the habit. Free writing time so they can work through what it means to be a writer and start to see the small success that will carry them forward. Whether it is ten solid minutes like it is in my Informational Studies class or even just four minutes like it was last year for me. Time should be dedicated to free writing every single day, even if you only have 45-minute classes.
We give them freedom.
Every day we tell our kids to write something in their writer’s notebook. We offer up a prompt but we also tell them they don’t have to use it. And then we step back, encourage them to write, but nothing else. This is about them, not us.
We tell stories.
Great writing starts with stories, so we tell our own stories and model what it means to capture an audience. We have them share their own stories as they practice how to hold an audience captive. We do speeches so they can see what grabs people’s attention and what doesn’t. Through the stories we tell we encourage them to write someday, to find ideas for writing.
We withhold judgment.
Every few weeks I look through their writer’s notebooks just to get to know them. I don’t assess, I don’t correct. Instead, I write comments, genuine reactions to what they have written so they know I am reading. But I do not tell them how to be a writer, not here, not now. That writer’s journal is exactly that; a journal, not an assignment. And so some write comics, others journal, some writ lengthy stories. Poetry, scribbling, moments of their lives burst at me from their pages and I hope that within all of their ideas they start to see what writing really is; an extension of self, of who we are and an exploration of how we fit in.
We bring authors in.
Many of my students are under the impression that “real” writers knew they were writers from a young age. That story ideas just come to them. that they sit down and a whole book just flows from their fingers. But that’s often not the case at all. how do I know? Because “real” writers have been speaking to my students via Skype for the last few years. And they dispel their writing myths one at a time. It turns out there is no one right writing process. There is not a right way to write. Inspiration comes from many places. And it also turns out that writing is hard work. That getting the idea is often the smallest part but the actual revising and cutting out and making better is where the work comes in. They don’t believe me when I say these things always but when authors do, they start to.
We are real writers.
How many of us teach writing but don’t write ourselves? How many of us create our modeled texts at home because we know it will be hard to do it on the spot in front of the kids? How many of us would never consider ourselves writers but then expect our students to be? Be a writer yourself, it doesn’t have to be published, but go through the process and do it authentically. Share how hard writing is for you, share your bad habits of writing, give them a real role model of what writers are so they don’t think that it is something that just happens.
We ask them who they are as writers.
And we come back to the question throughout the year. We ask them to explore what writing means to them. We ask them what their writing process is and we share our own. We ask them to find some sort of value in writing, not because they have to love it but because they should be at peace with it.
We have them lead the conversations.
Less checklists. Less pre-determined goals only set by the teacher. Less specific feedback that teaches them that this is the only thing they need to work on because that is all the teacher told them to work on. More student reflection, more student questions, more student ownership over how they need to grow. When we confer they should do most of the talking. When we confer they should start to find out what they need our help with, not vice versa. In the beginning, it is hard but it will never get easier if we don’t start the conversations and hand over the reigns.
We don’t give up.
Every day we write. Every day we share stories. Every day we create something. Every day we become more than what we were. And we don’t give up. We hear their truths as we gently encourage them forward. We showcase many kinds of writing. We give them freedom, trust, and a safe space to share. We tell them to share when they can and not when they don’t want to. We tell them to use our space as writers would; get comfortable, listen to music, discover your writing process. Find your writing peers so you have people you trust that will give you honest feedback.
For too long creative writing has taken a backseat to task writing and while I know we need to be able to write things that fulfill purposes, we cannot lose sight of the bigger picture here. We have to give our students opportunities to have a relationship with writing that goes beyond what the teacher told them to do. And that starts with the very decisions we make every day in our classrooms. That starts right now.
If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017. This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block. 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. Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.