We are starting the year, and the creation of our writing portfolio, with a unit focused on memoir and personal essay. I am hoping that in this unit, the students will start to share parts of their writing identity through discussion of what makes them a writer or not, the erules of writing and which we need to break, as well as experimentation with writing based in their own lives.
I have been gathering memoirs and personal essays for a while now, trying to focus on stories that may enrich their understanding of how others see the world so that they in turn can focus on their own lives.
As always, our trusted picture books are part of the mentor text collection that will surround students as we embark into this work, so here are the ones I have pulled so far that focus on small moments and written in 1st person. While some of these are true memoirs, others are texts I can use as models despite them not being true stories.
I will add more as I pull them, especially newer books to use. If you would like to see other lists of favorite books, go here.
As I get ready to embark on another year of teaching English, I have been learning more about the writing process and the specific skills that I need to teach in order to help my students change or strengthen their experience with writing. Within the pages of professional development books I have found so much inspiration for how to create a better experience, hopefully, for kids. And so when I went to my classroom today, I pulled a few great picture books that I plan on sharing and showcasing to students to help them discuss the supposed rules of writing and how we can break them to create our a unique written piece. Here are some of the ones I pulled.
Battle Bunny by Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett is a great picture book to use with kids that feel they have no ideas because it shows the legitimacy of starting from something known and making it your own. Plus, this book is just a fun read!
I love how I Am A Story by Dan Yaccarino urges us to think of how far stories have traveled and how they shape our society. I love the illustrations paired with the unfolding of story, fantastic for setting up writer’s workshop at any age.
This Is My Book! by Mark Pett (and no one else) is laugh out loud funny. I especially enjoyed the interplay between the author and the panda. Kids are sure to appreciate the message but also how well it is portrayed; who really creates the story and how can we co-create?
The Whisper by Pamela Zagarenski is beautiful both in text and in the illustrations. Using a book whose words fall out as a way to discuss imagination is a marvelous way to get students thinking more creatively.
Three PD books that are furthering my work at the moment are
Comprehension & Collaboration – Revised Edition by Stephanie Harvey and Harvey “Smokey” Daniels is helping me frame our year of writing as inquiry explorations.
Rozlyn Linder left us much too soon but her genius lives on in her book The Big Book of Details. If you have ever told a child to add more details but wasn’t quite sure how to have them do this, this is the book for you.
The importance of Why They Can’t Write by John Warner to my upcoming year of instruction is undisputed. I am re-working everything I am doing with writing because of this book.
Six years ago, I wrote a piece on here called, Why Reading Sucks and It’s Ok to Talk About It. It has shaped my work ever since. It has become a defining feature of what I believe in when it comes to the work we help students do in our year of reading together. The need to focus on the emotions and experiences that a child carries with them when it comes to the act of reading, the need to validate them wherever they are on their journey in order to, hopefully, help them shape their journey in a more purposeful way. In order to protect those who love reading. In order to help those who hate reading perhaps dislike it a little bit less.
Much like that post, i try to teach kids to care about writing. To see their writing as something they can use beyond the lesson, beyond the product. I try to create situations where they find value in what they do and feel like they were actually taught something that perhaps will help them in their lives. Yet, every year, without a fail, no matter the amazing teaching and classrooms they have been a part of, so many of my students loudly proclaim how much they hate writing. And their actions show it.
“Forgetting” their pencils and not saying anything about it. Repeatedly telling me that they just don’t know what to write. Anger, shut downs, outright refusal. Quickly writing something in order to be done. Sometimes tears. And our students are not alone, often when I teach other teachers, I ask how many of them consider themselves readers – most raise their hand – when I ask themselves how many consider themselves writers, almost all of their hands go down. When I ask them to share a written reflection, you can see the pain behind that in many. And these are adults.
Writing is something that carries a lot of emotions. And we need to talk about that more.
And it needs to be direct, not hopefully something that comes up at some point, but a conversation that acknowledges that writing and the act of sharing one’s writing can be emotional for some, downright terrifying for others.
Because here’s the thing, if we say we want to create classrooms where students feel safe, where they feel accepted, where they feel that we care about them, all of them, then we need to make room for the complicated emotions that can be attached to the work we do. We need to make room for the identity of the writer that shares our space, not just the skills of the writers. And we need to do it purposefully. Not leave it to chance or hope that we will navigate it when it comes up. Think of how powerful it can be when we ask a child to share what they feel comfortable sharing before we dive into the work. When we set up the conditions to say, “It’s ok to not like writing, tell us more about that, so perhaps we can work on that together…” To acknowledge that some of our kids think they are bad writers because their spelling is not strong. That some of our kids think they are bad writers because their grades tell them so. That some of our kids think they are bad writers because they see no value in the types of writing we do, so why invest themselves?
To write something is to make yourself vulnerable to the world. It is to not only share your thoughts but to share them in a way that tells us when they are incomplete, when they perhaps are misspelled, when perhaps our grammar or way of speaking is different than others. It is to create a somewhat permanent record of who we are at that very moment. It is to let others into ourselves.
So as I plan for my first few days of school, one of the central conversations that will ground our identity work for the year will be, “When does writing suck?” I will share my own experiences as a writer in the hope that students will share some of theirs. Then I will hand them post-its; write down as many reasons you can think of for when writing sucks or for when writing is great. You don’t have to put down your name if you don’t want to. You can write to only one side of the experience. You can write down as many as you want. You can share as deeply as you want. Tape them to the board so they don’t fall down.
And then we will step back and look. See the patterns, discuss the patterns. We may see how others share the same thoughts as we do. We will decide on ways to move forward.
We will create our writing rights together, let these community agreements determine our path forward.
I know this is only the beginning, a start that will work for some but not for all. I know that the students have no reason to trust me, yet some will. I know that with others it will take time, action, and courage. I can hope to create the conditions in our shared experience so that at some point, perhaps, writing will be something they don’t hate. Something they can see their own growth in. Something they can see value in. I can hope. But I can also plan.
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.