I used to correspond with my grandma, Helen, mostly through e-mail when I was in college. She enjoyed being on her computer, and she enjoyed being able to send and receive messages–especially from her grandson. It wasn’t incredibly frequent that we’d message. Maybe once a month or once a quarter, but in our messages, I’d update her on recent life events, exciting trips I was taking, or other things that she was curious about.
I wish I had the e-mail I’m about to reference, but I don’t anymore. Gone are the days where I delete my e-mails (#archiveforlife), but luckily this e-mail still exists in my mind’s eye. It’s burned into my memory, and I’m sure it will be for the rest of my life.
“You’re quite the writer,” she said at the end of one of our e-mail exchanges, referring to the detail in which I had described some of my recent travels.
I remember staring at the screen, rereading some of the things I’d sent to her. To me, I was just talking through the computer. To me, I was just sharing of myself by dancing my fingers across the keyboard. To her, though, it was good writing.
I always say that’s the day that I became a writer.
I’d never really seen myself as one before that. Sure, I had written things for my teachers, but never before had someone called me that.
I carry that e-mail and this story with me in all of my experiences as a teacher. It was the seed that grew my confidence as a writer, and I’m grateful it’s grown into a writing voice that I now feel comfortable sharing with all of you.
So many of our students aren’t afforded these opportunities. They haven’t had the experience of someone using the word writer to label them. And that’s where we, the teachers come in. It is not only our job; it is our duty to help children know they are writers. Note: I didn’t say help them “think” they are writers. It is to let them know. Because all children, regardless of ability, vocabulary, or fine motor skills, are writers.
But why don’t they already know this? Why is writing workshop such an uphill battle for so many? Well, I have a few ideas.
“I don’t know what to write,” so many of my kids say to me. “I don’t have any ideas.”
Well that’s bullshit, if you ask me. They certainly seem to have ideas when they are sitting and talking with their friends. They certainly seem to have ideas when it’s time to open up drawing for choice time.
The truth is that they don’t think their ideas are worthy of being put on paper. To kids, writing something down is so final. It’s so vulnerable. Seeing their ideas manifested before them can be incredibly hard because they don’t think anyone will want to read them.
Worthiness and perfection are close relatives. Oftentimes we measure our worthiness in terms of our proximity to perfection. We ask ourselves and others: Is it good? Did I do a good job? I know it’s not perfect, but do you like it?
I feel this almost every time I write. And it’s always my perfectionism that leads to my dry spells in writing. I think I have nothing good to say, and when I do think I have something worth saying, I get so caught up in making sure I’ve communicated it perfectly.
That’s why now, in my classrooms and with my students, I’ve adopted a new mantra.
“A writer’s work is never done,” I say to them repeatedly. By the end of the year, we are all constantly saying it together.
It helps for a few reasons. First, it reminds them they can’t rush through their work and finish it hastily. There are no “after work choices” in my writing workshop. If you finish a writing piece, go back and revise it. And if you’ve revised, go through and edit. If you’ve done all of that, start a new piece!
Second, reminding ourselves that a writer’s work is never done grants us permission to say, “I did my best, and this is good enough to be published.” Before they publish, I do everything in my power to help them confirm it’s their best and most mindful work. But there are still spelling errors, misplaced commas, deformed letters, and ideas that don’t quite make sense. But it’s okay. It’s okay because it demonstrates their journey as a writer, and when they compare their initial and final copies, they can describe the ways in which they’ve grown.
In Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, Zaretta Hammond challenges us to shepherd learners from dependence to independence. Too often, we provide our struggling writers with too much support. We give them too many sentence starters or rigid structures for composing paragraphs and sentences. These structures end up being restrictive: they restrict student autonomy and limit student voice. Then, when it comes time to write freely or compose a piece that represents a part of their identity, they’re stuck. Their mindset has become so fixed around what it means to be a writer that they are blocked from accomplishing anything at all.
Structure does matter in writing, and we need to teach children about ways to structure their writing so it is sensical and coherent. But this often results in formulaic writing, mostly because so many teachers don’t see themselves as writers, and therefore don’t know how to help kids find their voices within structure. My rule of thumb? If the structure limits independence or fosters dependence, then it’s too restrictive, and you must change your plans.
So how do we solve this problem?
While I wish I had a silver bullet, I don’t. Solving this problem entails getting to know your class and your students. It requires being curious about what lies beneath their apparent disdain for writing.
For my class last year, I noticed many of the behaviors I’ve described throughout this post. It was pervasive in my classroom. And it overwhelmed me. In the first weeks of school, it seemed like so many of my kids were struggling with these three barriers. They told me they didn’t have any good ideas; I could sense they were setting unrealistic expectations for themselves; and I could tell they were waiting for me to do it for them.
For those first few weeks, I changed my success metrics. My learning objectives were not related to organization, development, elaboration, or mechanics. I refrained from showing them how to add sensory details or figure out where to put a period. I taught them how to “let go” and to just get something down on paper. Some days, I felt like a cheerleader–like an Energizer bunny running around the room saying things like “if it’s in your mind, just write it down.” I clapped my hands and jumped up and down. I modeled my own stream-of-consciousness type writing, modeling vulnerability and uncertainty within the writing process.
And you know what? It worked. Within a month, my writing workshop was transformed. So few of them came up to me saying they were lacking ideas. So few of them were staring at the ceiling listlessly, unable to get started on their own.
We must remember.
Hating writing is not natural. It is learned. We teach our kids to hate writing through counterproductive practices and by projecting our desire for perfection onto them. To change our writing cultures, we must change our mindset and our practice.
For we all have something important to say–our students especially. And our number one priority in writing instruction should be helping our young ones to scale the impact of their voices. We mustn’t be the ones to teach them to hate writing: we must be more like my Grandma Helen, and be the ones to teach them that their writing has value.
Comments? Questions? Disagreements? Additions?
Please comment below. I’d love to hear from you. These and more ideas will be available in my book, Reclaiming Personalized Learning, which comes out October 1st!