I am a writer.
For years, I scribbled in notebooks or clacked away on a keyboard always hoping that one day, I would become a writer. Do you see the flaw in that thinking? I WAS a writer – I have always been a writer – but I believed I wasn’t. Because I was a student, because I wasn’t a professional, because I didn’t see my strengths, and because no one told me I was, I must not have been a writer.
How many of your students would say that they ARE, present tense, right now, writers? If your students are like many of mine used to be, my guess is that very few, if any, would describe themselves as writers if you asked. In contrast, how many of your students use writing as a means of communication daily? How many of your students will need to be effective writers/communicators in their futures? Yes, all of them.
Writing instruction is an area with which even English teachers struggle. Truth be told, most of us aren’t taught HOW to teach writing, and if we don’t see ourselves as writers we’re not likely to dip our toes in and try teaching it. But you don’t have to be professional chef to cook well or enjoy cooking, and the same is true for teaching writing. With a few simple ingredients, anyone can help make writers.
Ingredient 1: Choice
The other night I was reading Kids Deserve It by Adam Welcome and Todd Nesloney, and they quote Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1950) when discussing leadership: “If you want to build a ship, don’t gather people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather, teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea” (Nesloney & Welcome, 2016, p. 53). This same philosophy could be applied to just about any subject, but it’s particularly relevant for writing.
Students will rarely truly care about, let alone enjoy, writing activities if they don’t care about the writing topic. Caring about writing begins with caring about WHAT you’re writing. And if our goal as educators is to help students develop a love for reading and writing long-term, it doesn’t seem to make much sense in assigning them topics that feel irrelevant to them or even assigning them specific topics at all. Does this mean we ignore content and standards? Not at all. What it means is that we put students in the driver’s seat. And believe it or not, when students know we trust them and that they have the freedom and responsibility to choose their topic, they focus MORE because they know they need to evaluate their interests if they are to find the idea they’ll enjoy most. I don’t want them to stare at a blank page or plunk away on their keyboards dutifully; instead I want them to be so immersed in their writing that they are surprised when the bell rings and can’t wait for their next free moment to continue.
Ingredient 2: Conferencing (with peers and adults)
I once had a colleague ask me why I would use a fully processed written piece as a summative assessment. “It’s not a test,” she explained. “How do you know what a peer offered or what they would be able to do on their own?”
I understood her concern. It was something I’d worried about before I’d shifted to more authentic and less formulaic, rigid writing instruction in my classroom. But there are a few reasons that that thinking is flawed. The first reason is more logic than anything else: How many people do you know that want to complete someone else’s work for them? Right, none. But our kids DO want to help one another, especially when they are relying on others in the class to help them see their gaps in logic or errors that cloud meaning. Even as an English teacher, I rely on people all the time to preview my ideas or writing before I share them. That’s collaboration and communication at their finest, and we have to teach and learn those skills in context, not piecemeal or as part of a simulation type of lesson that isn’t true learning.
The second reason is more about curriculum. Common Core doesn’t exist so that we can teach students independent standards and check them off a list as students “master” them. The Common Core guidelines exist so that students learn skills in conjunction with other skills. Even in seventh grade, students should, “with some guidance and support from peers and adults, develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach, focusing on how well purpose and audience have been addressed” (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.7.5) because that’s what life looks like. It’s just smart to check with other people before you submit a proposal or present major findings, and it’s also what employers want future workers to be able to do: work together, take feedback well, revise, think through ideas, and polish a good product. That process is quality experience, and experience is an incredible way to learn.
It’s important to note, too, that giving feedback is not giving answers. For me, giving feedback is asking a lot of questions to help students notice their own gaps. It’s commenting on strengths, and asking students if they notice areas for improvement. When students review their peers’ work, they look for different things depending on the writer’s progress at that point, but it’s important for them to think big picture early on and small scale late in the process. In a first draft, I usually don’t comment at all on grammar, usage, or mechanics because a rough draft is meant to be rough. Instead, feedback is focused on cohesion, logic, and purpose. Punctuation placement doesn’t mean much if the readers can’t follow the message! I often have to explain that revising takes more work than changing around a few things. It often means deleting, rearranging, and writing more, which takes a lot of time. With feedback from multiple readers, though, we can notice a lot and help each other find the best direction.
So writing instruction is mostly one-on-one or in small teams in my room now, and as a result, I spend very little time at the front of the room anymore. Small group instruction might happen when a group of kids is ready to learn more sophisticated transition techniques or needs a few more examples of citation. Individual conferences then allow me to spend my time working with struggling students on reading comprehension and analysis strategies (because even high school students need reading instruction) or with an advanced student who is ready to move on to higher level standards or just needs feedback. In both cases, I learn exactly what that student needs and provide as many students as possible with opportunities to ask initial and follow up questions without the pressure of a classroom of listeners. In addition, the responsibility is put on the students to then take that feedback and do the work to improve their writing, and that’s the hard part — the experience — that helps them improve their skills.
I often hear this question: How do you have time for that? Truthfully, it takes up the majority of my time. But simply put, it’s the BEST use I’ve found so far of my students’ and my time. I can SEE their learning happening, and it’s so much more rewarding than HOPING they’ll remember the lesson I just taught at the board enough to apply it in their own work.
Ingredient 3: Audience/Purpose
About a year into my marriage I learned that my husband loves carrot cake. He had been deployed to Afghanistan for almost all of our engagement (and even went back for a few months after we were married), and somehow carrot cake didn’t come up until we had moved again and were expecting our first child. Needless to say, our honeymoon period wasn’t typical, so when I found out he liked carrot cake, I was determined that my first attempt would be perfect for him. I researched recipes online and scoured the reviews to find the best one. I poured over the winning recipe to ensure I noticed all the important details. As it baked, I constantly checked its progress, and when it had cooled, I carefully decorated it with little icing carrots. It wasn’t perfect (in fact, as you can see, my decorating was a little lopsided), but it he loved it, and I was proud of my effort and product.
The truth is, we work harder if we feel that what we’re doing is important or we’re passionate about it or we’re going to share it with someone else. George Couros, author of The Innovator’s Mindset (2015), talks often about the power of shared reflection through blogging. He says that knowing we will probably be read by others (some of whom we’ve never met before) makes us think more deeply about our message, and when we write with the purpose of informing or helping our reader, we naturally want to do well not for only ourselves, but more for our reader, so that he or she can understand clearly.
While I certainly think blogging is a worthwhile writing exercise to strengthen any writer, our students don’t necessarily have to blog to have a purpose and audience. But it is necessary that students have a purpose and share their process and product with an audience whether they make a video about the dangers of stereotypes to publish on YouTube or write a poem about the water cycle that they submit to a science-related publication. Even making a carrot cake can help us develop critical reading skills and attention to detail if we’re making it for someone we love.
Mixing it all together
After a year of writing with choice, purpose, conferencing/feedback, and for different audiences, one of my high school students reflected on her learning as a writer:
Not only have I learned in this class, not only have I experienced in this class, but I have grown. I feel like I have sprouted like a beautiful flower because someone finally gave me the chance. Academically, I feel like I write in such a more sophisticated sense from writing for the school newspaper. I also feel personal strengths of mine, like descriptive detail, emotional writing, poetry, and persuasive ideas, will only grow stronger from here.
This student changed lives through the writing projects she shared, and her confidence grew immensely because she finally had an audience to hear her and cheer her. She felt a purpose in sharing because she wrote about real issues in our school and in her world; she cared deeply about her message and she wanted that message to be well-received by readers, even if they didn’t agree with her. Most importantly, she found her voice and now knows how to push herself in the future. Isn’t that our goal: to help students develop an independent love for learning that lasts a lifetime?
Mixing it up might not be easy: Sometimes a new recipe is difficult to put together. But trying something new is usually a worthwhile adventure. And I can tell you from experience, this one is delicious.