new year, writing, Writing Identity

Starting With Writing Identity First Rather than Writing Skills

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As I plan our first exploration for the coming year, one that dives into personal essays, I have been thinking about the writing experience itself. About how personal it is. About how draining it can be. About how asking a child to write is really asking them to trust us enough to show off where they need growth. The emotions attached to writing are often overlooked and yet how many of our students will gladly tell us how they are not writers, or at least not good writers? Now many of my students can technically write. They can produce stories that make sense, that use appropriate vocabulary, that move the action along, that convey a meaning or an idea. They can do the writing, but they will tell you quickly, loudly, that they are not writers. This is despite the stellar teachers and experiences that come before them entering our classroom. This is despite the powerful curriculum and experiences put in place in order to help students develop their writing repertoire so they can feel comfortable.

And yet, the same story plays out every year, perhaps it does for you too, classrooms filled with students who groan at the mention of writing. Who tell me they will never use writing for anything outside of school. But it doesn’t match up with what we see; their urgency to tell stories through the social media apps that they use. Their animated conversations as they hurry up to one another, eager to share what just happened. The many students who invest in the world at large, become emotionally engaged with the stories that surround us, I see them interact with writing so much, and yet, if you were to ask students how many of them would find value in writing beyond the grade? The process? The box checked off and onto the next assignment?

So I have been thinking about the rush we feel to get started with skills. With how we plan our units in order to teach as many practical components in order to equip students with the technical know-how they need to produce good writing. With how we plan our first writing unit in terms of what the end product should be to show mastery of skills rather than focusing on the process to see growth not just as a writer but also as a person. I get the urgency to start; education seems to be a race we are all failing at keeping up with, but I wonder at what cost to developing a writing identity does this rush to get started with skills produce in the long run?

When we fail to discuss the identity as writers that students bring with them into our communities, are we really providing students, kids, with a chance to see themselves as writers beyond the classroom?

Can we affect long-term change if we do not recognize the emotions attached to writing and what it means to write at school?

A main focus for me for many years has been the development of reading identity, this is what I teach others to do and what I often share about here. I have been proud of how our students have invested in this work, and yet, I have failed to transfer that work in a meaningful way over to the process of writing and being a writer. While I have used surveys to discuss their writing identity, I have let it fall off the radar, lost in all of the to-do’s. I have failed to create a community where writing identity is seen as important as writing skills. And I think it has been one of my largest missed opportunities.

But not anymore, not this year. This year, we are slowing down. We are starting with an exploration of what it means to write, notice I didn’t say write well, because language matters and sometimes weighted language is all a child needs to remove themselves from the promise of growth. We will focus on what it means to be a writer, on the language that surrounds us as we see our own writing identity. Each day will have a specific discussion point as I slowly, hopefully, build trust within our community to share the emotions or experiences attached to writing.

It will start with a survey after we have discussed why writing sucks and when it doesn’t, a opportunity to set a writing goal, it will continue with chances to play with writing rather than the immediate focus on a product, instead using their writer’s notebooks to try different prompts (with a permanent option to write whatever they want ) as they read powerful essays we have collected to hopefully show them that writing doesn’t have to follow all of the same rules and that there are many different ways to write.

Slowly, hopefully, we will have conversations about the value they want to find within their own writing. On the worth they want to place on their own stories, their own communication.

Will it be enough? No. But it will be a start. A start to something better for me where the very identity of the child that is entrusted to us is at the center of the work, not just the skills, not the program, not the finished product, but the child itself, as much as they will allow it. A start to the yearlong identity work we do as inspired by the Social Justice Standards created by Teaching Tolerance.

Writing is something so many adults don’t do because we feel like our words have no place being shown and shared with others. Even now as someone who has written four books and had them published, as someone who has written publicly for more than 9 years, I still don’t feel like I get to call myself a writer. And I want to change that.

I hope our students will find some sort of value in the work that we will do beyond “the teacher told me to do it…” I hope that by making intentional space for conversations about who they are as a writer and how they want to grow, embracing both the positive and negative aspects of writing identity, will allow us for a more meaningful overall exploration of writing. Lofty goal? Sure, but we have to at least try.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child.  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.

5 thoughts on “Starting With Writing Identity First Rather than Writing Skills”

  1. Thanks for sharing your survey and goal setting documents. Great way for me to start my year that starts in a few short weeks. Writing is a big part of my daily practice with my students and getting to know them as writers is important. Thanks!

  2. So much of a student writers perception of their ability comes from outside of the classroom. A student writes a short story and gives it to their friends to read. Being young critics, they tear it to pieces. Or the young writer gives it to their parent to proof read and the doesn’t like the topic and pans the paper ( true story: one of my students wanted to write about Whitney Houston. Parent came in with kid in tow, demanding to know why I would let their child choose such a miserable example of humanity. This was after the kid had done the research, and written the first draft of the paper). Or another teacher/ adult sees the paper and makes a “ funny” remark about the writing style “I see you are a writer that believes in torturing the common comma”. I have no ideas how to make a young writer feel good about writing after the above instances.

    1. It starts with direct conversations about the hurt that may be wrapped up in our writing identity, or the words we carry with us when we think of ourselves as writers. We cannot make any kind of progress if we don’t acknowledge and create a space where kids (and adults) can tell us how their writing has been impacted by others’ interactions with it. If we start there then we can start to change the narrative.

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