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.
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.
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!
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…