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.

being a student, student choice, Student dreams, writing

A Few Ideas for Better Peer Editing

I became disillusioned with traditional peer editing a few years back after I had once again spent a long time coming up with a specific checklist for students to work through in order to help them strengthen their writing. I think this was my 10th version of said checklist, a list that was specific in its purpose, supposedly easy to follow, and exactly what we were working on. Almost every single student pairing blasted through the list and turned to me proudly to tell me that it all looked good, that they had now produced their very best draft, and that surely, there was nothing else they needed to fix.

And yet…when I inevitably peered over their shoulder, I saw the same mistakes. The same missed opportunities for discussion about their writing. Depsite the checklist. Despite all of my careful planning.

Move to 7th grade and I mention peer editing and all I am met with is groans. “Please not that, Mrs. Ripp…” and so as always, i would ask students to tell me more about their reaction and what they told me was the final nail in the coffin for my traditional way of doing peer editing.

We don’t trust our editors and writing is personal.

They just tell us it’s all good.

We don’t know how to help.

They don’t want my help.

I knew then that not only was I past the checklist days, but I had to change the whole writing community we had established in order to help them grow together as writers, a dream I am still working on year after year.

So in the past few years, we haven’t had a peer editing process per say, what we have done instead is focus on creating a writing community that is established early. A writing community that celebrates our writing, a writing community that (at times, because let’s be realistic here) doesn’t hate to write.

While this is still major work in progress for us, there are a few things we are proud of. These include:

  • The choice of who you work with in your writing. This way students start to see who can naturally help them with their writing rather than the constant forced pairings of years passed.
  • The choice of whether to continue revising/editing or to be done. Students know that when they see work as done, it often is, they then choose to either start a new piece or continue to work on the current one.
  • The understanding of the need for others’ eyes on your writing at times. The students we teach often ask each other naturally to look at their writing because they know that if they don’t, they will miss opportunities for growth. This is encouraged with built in time and conversation about what it means to be with fellow writers. Students are encouraged to share, read, and comment on each other’s writing when it makes sense to them. This is huge for ownership and lens of what they need.
  • The choice of whether to share or not. While students are expected to share some of their writing with the community, not all writing is for others. This has been a part of our foundation as it is important that students see their writing as theirs to own, not mine.
  • The choice to write poorly. It has been important for our students to understand that not all writing is going to be great. That sometimes what we are writing is not working, is not great, is not something we want to share. What we work on is getting past that feeling whether by abandoning a piece or working through it.

I know when I started writing books and realized what editing and writing communities really did for my writing, I know I wanted to emulate that in my classroom and yet for many of my students, they don’t see a purpose in their writing beyond the teacher telling them to get it done. This is why it has been such a long process for me because not only am I trying to get them to write better, but also to see power in their writing. This is also why I don’t write about our writing work very often because it is such a huge work in progress and I doubt my own ideas a lot, despite the growth I see.

So, the other day as we were finishing our This I Believe scripts, I turned to my learning community to see what else is out there for ideas in better writing partnerships, especially with an eye on revision, and I was not disappointed. There were so many great ideas and opportunities for growth shared that are helping me go further in my journey. So wherever you are in yours, perhaps some of these ideas will help you further develop your writing community as well. I know I have a lot of work to do with my current and incoming students as we continue to try to make our writing more meaningful.

This is yet another reason why I love social media so much, thank you so much to everyone who shared. There is a wealth of ideas here, many of them centered around the individual child’s identity as a writer and the vulnerability that is naturally involved when it comes to sharing what we have written with the world. And that for me is always the biggest piece; how will my students feel after they have shared their writing? Will they feel empowered or will they feel taken apart? Will it truly have transformed their writing or will it just be one more reason that they think they cannot write?

I know I have much to learn!

PS: In case, you missed the announcement, I am running a book study of my first book Passionate Learners this summer in the Passionate Readers Facebook group. You should join us!

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.

being a student, writing

Reclaiming Handwriting

Every year it seems as if spelling, punctuation, and capitalization have become a little harder for students to master.  Despite the great lessons they have had before.  Despite the repeated instruction, reminders, and opportunities in previous year’s classes, the fundamentals of writing just seem harder to master.

Some might say that it is not a big deal.  That most written work doesn’t require handwriting anyway.  That handwritten work is slowly dying and so why waste time worrying about things that can be auto-corrected.  And sure, computers are definitely the way of the future, the way much of our society already is, and yet, there is still a place for handwriting.  For sitting down with a paper and pen(cil) and doing the work.  Even if kids choose to not do so on their own.  And while, I am a fan of spellcheck, Grammarly, and all of the autocorrections Google Docs does for us, we kept wondering as a team whether these tools were part of the problem.  Perhaps because we have moved so much of our writing to the computer, kids are not naturally noticing their own patterns?  Not noticing when they don’t capitalize on their own name, the beginnings of sentences, proper nouns because the computer does it for them?  Perhaps punctuation is being added at the end because it is easy to do on a computer and so it is missed while writing?    The only way to find out was to try to integrate more handwriting, see if it would make a difference.

So this year, every single time we do our free writes in our writer’s notebook, they are by hand.  Typing is no longer a choice unless it is a required component of an IEP.  Kids are asked to grab a pencil, we have plenty, and to formulate their thoughts on paper.  In the beginning, there were groans, complaints of how their hand hurt, which I get, how they preferred to type.  But we stuck with it.  Asking them to create in pencil, revise in pen, get a smelly sticker if you put in the effort (whatever they think effort might be).

And slowly, we are seeing a change.  More punctuation, for sure.  A greater awareness when sentences don’t make sense.  More capitalization.  The small components that seem to be needed as students grow as better writers.  Better letter formation as kids realize that they can control their handwriting because they need to.  We don’t assess their free writes, they are for them to play with writing, not for us to create a grade, but we do ask them to pay attention to the basics:  Does it make sense?  Did you capitalize?  Did you use punctuation?  But that is not the only change.  We are seeing more writing.  More ideas coming quicker.  Better ideas being developed.  Kids wanting to share their stories, their thoughts.  Kids experimenting with the way they write and what they write about.  An added bonus, but an important one, as we tackle all of the emotions that sometimes stop kids from feeling like writers.

Typed writing is still a part of our class.  When we do large projects, when we research and such.  And yet, there needs to be a space for the written word by hand as well.  As more and more districts race toward one-to-one, I worry about the effect of eyesight with the increase in screen time, I worry about the lost instructional time every time a child has to log in, find the website, and the internet is slow.  I worry about how kids share that sometimes staring at a blank document is more overwhelming for some of our kids than a blank piece of paper.  So as my students tell me time and time again; everything in moderation, and that includes working on a computer.

For now, we will continue to sharpen our pencils every day, share a prompt, and ask the kids to fall into their writing.  To simply try to write something, even if it is not very good.  To focus on reclaiming this part of themselves that they may have become disconnected from in rush to computers.  Settle in, settle down, get to writing…

If you like what you read here, consider reading my 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.

being a student, being a teacher, being me, writing

With Permission

We are about to write in class.  15 minutes of free write await.  I have a prompt from the amazing The Creativity Project, I am ready with my own pencil, my notebook, the document camera.  And yet…the hesitation from students is almost palpable.  So many of them already feeling defeated.  Feeling like this will be hard.  Asking if they can read instead of write.  Despite all of their years of great teaching, of great moments with writing, so many of our kids still feel like writing is something they will never like, nor is it something they will ever master.

On our wall hangs our writing rights poster, the rights we created as a writing community at the beginning of the year.  The rights that surround us as we play with writing, as we develop our writing voice.  And yet, something is woefully missing from it.

So I add it quickly.

“You have the right to write “bad” writing.”

And I tell my students this…writing doesn’t have to be great.  Writing doesn’t even have to be good.  You have the right to write bad stories, to write poems that you never want to share.  To write a few sentences that are so cringy that you can’t believe you came up with them.  You have the right to start, to stop, to think, to write whatever pops into your mind.  Not because it is any good but because you are simply writing.

And then I share the beginning of a story I wrote that morning with my first-hour class.  A story that I knew was terrible as I wrote it, filled with cliches, overused plot points and weird sentences, but U was tired and distracted and so that was all I could think of.  I read it aloud, laughing as I go.  At first, I can see the skeptical looks – this isn’t that bad, Mrs. Ripp – but when they get to the genie in the bottle part, they are laughing too.  As I finish, I shut my notebook and declare that I will never continue that story but at least I wrote.

One child yells, “But you write books, Mrs. Ripp, how can you write bad stories?”

“My book took me a year to write..” I answer honestly because it’s true, my books take a long time because I wrote a lot of stuff that never gets published.

We turn back to the prompt.  I remind them to sink into their writing, to simply write something, using the prompt or not, and off they go.  Every single child writing something.  Every child trying.  Not because they are all trying to write something powerful but because they are reminded once again that writing doesn’t always have to be everything we love about writing.  Something you just have to write badly and be okay with that.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my 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.

 

being a teacher, being me, writing

As We Write…

All day, writing has been calling to me.  The magic of the words unfolding, my thoughts becoming clearer, my ideas set to page, taking a life of their own.  Ideas abound, swirling until I feel unsettled, craving the peace that inevitably arrives after the writing has happened.  A picture book?  A new book for educators?  A blog post?  A poem as I prepare to advise our slam poetry club starting tomorrow (wish me luck)?  The urge to write is there even if the ideas are not fully formed, fully present, but the keys call my name as I sit in front of the fire, reflecting on today.

I wonder how many of our students have that urge?  How many are called to write as they process the world around them?  Search for their unique way to sift through the bombardment of images and thoughts that constantly surround us?  How many feel the call of a pen, a journal, a keyboard, as a way to unpack and digest?  As a way to create something that didn’t exist until they decided to create it?

I have said it before, but it bears repeating; in our eagerness to make sure that students can write well, are we extinguishing their very urge to write?  To tell stories?  To reflect?  To process somehow?

When we ask our students who they are as writers, their answers lack little surprise; I am a writer who writes because I have to.  I am not a writer.  I hate writing.  I am a writer who writes in school, that’s it.

“How many sentences do I need, Mrs. Ripp?”

“How long should it be?”

“I don’t know what to write…”

Not let me write.

Not can we write?

But why do we have to write?  I will never use writing when I am… older…in my job…when I leave school.  Fill in the sentence however you see fit.

So for the next four weeks, we will play with writing.  We will form stories, journals, poems, plays, comics, whatever strikes our fancy as we take away the assessment.  As we make a space every day to simply write.  As we make a space every day to share what we wrote if we want to.  As we make room for the conversations that need to surround the writing and the writers.  As we strip away the to-do’s and search for the to-be’s.

As we discover perhaps not just who we are as writers, but more so who we want to be.  As we search and perhaps even find a place for writing somewhere in our busy lives so that perhaps, just perhaps, their answers will not always be, “do we have to write?” but instead can be “Do we have to stop?”

If you like what you read here, consider reading my 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.

 

Be the change, being a teacher, writing

On Writing and Spelling

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“I’m a bad writer because I can’t spell…” a student’s answer when I asked them who they are as a writer.

One of the oft-repeated conversations in room 235d is dispelling the notion that to be a great writer you must be a great speller.  While, of course, students need to work on their spelling, I spend a good deal of time helping them realize that content is different than grammar.  That sharing their words is more important than spellcheck.  Now before anyone gets upset with me, yes, I believe that spelling should be taught.  Yes, I believe that students should work on it.  Yes, I believe spelling matters.  BUT.  It can’t be the biggest thing we focus on as students get older.  There has to be a balance.

So all year we talk about how we work on our spelling but we develop our writing.  How we shouldn’t let our fears of misspelling a word stand in the way of the message we are writing about.  I cannot tell you how many students are relieved to hear that their content and their spelling are assessed separately.  That the two represent different skills and are treated as such.

So few children believe that they are writers if they are poor spellers and that’s on us.  That false notion comes directly from how we frame our writing instruction.  From what we focus on when they hand us their stories, their opinions, their words and we focus on how it was written rather than the what even though the assignment was to write a story.

What if we told kids that yes, spelling, grammar, mechanics matter, but they are not the most important skill in writing at all times.  That as a teacher we can support them through the clean up of their work.  That we want them to play with language.  To be fierce in their word choice.  To write what they feel like without the fear of judgment when we take apart their hearts with the symbolic red pen.

So we find a balance in room 235D.  We work on spelling and grammar as their ideas develop, but we give as much or if not more attention to what the idea actually is.  We celebrate the kids that try new things.  That use new words.  That stretch their burgeoning spelling skills as they reach for language they are unfamiliar with.  We look at mentor texts where words were played with, grammar rules foregone, and spelling changed to see how they used these changes to push their truths.  We make a safe space to play with language rather than be worried about what the teacher will say.  It takes time.  It takes trust.  And it takes a deliberate conversation about what writing really can be for our kids.  We need both; focused mechanics instruction but also writing for the sake of discovering who you are as a writer and while the two are not mutually exclusive, we have to be careful with how much emphasis we place on one over the other.

When students year after year tell us loudly that they cannot be great writers because of how they spell, then that should be the impetus of change that spurs us to examine what message we are giving students.  Because as I tweeted last night; when students share their truths with us and we take it as a chance to question their grammar and spelling skills instead of listening to their words, we are once more complicit in the killing of student voice and engagement with school – that’s on us, that’s a choice.

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.