I was a reluctant writer —
—Something I have never considered myself before. In fact, I’ve always felt writing was a strength of mine.
When it came to this type of writing, writing for the world (as I call it below), I froze.
My intentions and desire for creating this blog started when I moved to NYC last August. Ideas and stories came, but month after month, they went untold.
You know those memories that ares so engrained in your mind that you can remember every little detail about that moment? I was sitting in the park, talking on the phone to my dear friend/mentor of all things in life, Elizabeth. I remember everything about that moment.
I told Elizabeth that after months, I finally had the courage to write a post. But I couldn’t get myself to publish it. I shared my fears:
Fear that no one would read it.
Fear that no one would like it.
Fear that I could try and fail.
Think our students have the same fears?
This was Elizabeth’s response:
Elizabeth went on,
“You are not honoring yourself or the world when you do not publish your writing.”
The idea that I would be doing the world a disservice and dishonor if I did not write was enough and is still enough to set aside my fears and publish. (Talk about a powerful conference!)
45 days and 6 posts later and for the first time in my life I call myself a writer. I crave writing. I feel incomplete, even anxious, if a day passes in which I do not write. When I have an idea, it’s hard to focus on anything else until it is out of my mind and on paper. Becoming a writer has made me a better reader. I read blogs to grow craft ideas for my own. I read books by authors who have written about things I think about. Writing makes me feel fulfilled.
I want to give the gift that Elizabeth gave to me to every one of my students, which has led me to ask How can we help writing fulfill our students’ lives in the way that it fulfills our own? and What can we do to ensure each student leaves our classroom with the concept: I am a writer?
This newfound writing identity coincided with a gift from our thoughtful administrators: Ralph Fletcher’s, Joy Write. If you are asking the same question as I did above or are at all intrigued by this post, buy it now.
Ralph Fletcher said all the things I needed to hear in this book — the original intent of writing workshop, naming the many kinds of writing I saw my kids immersing in last year, bringing breath and joy back to the writing process. Fletcher also names pure, wild, low-stakes, choice-in-type not just choice-in-topic writing – greenbelt writing (named after ecological greenbelts- a border of undeveloped land to allow for re-establishing of wildlife). Think of our writing workshop as being overly developed by standards, testing, high-stakes, like developed land. Greenbelts are a territory for wildlife, or in this case, wild writers to return and prosper.
Becoming a writer and reading Joy Write has changed the way I will teach writing in big ways:
Greenbelt writing in my classroom – Greenbelt writing happens every day during Soft starts. Last year I saw letters, petitions, sign-ups, collaborative writing, songs, fantasy writing, drawing and sketching. Greenbelt writing also happens at choice time – writing plans for play, assigning roles, labeling, signs, and more petitions and sign ups. The most exciting time for greenbelt writing happens in between genre studies. We shortened each genre study by 1-2 weeks (if you really get to know your writers and narrow teaching points down to the skills they need, this is totally possible), giving a 2, sometimes 3 week window for students to engage in independent and collaborative writing projects. This year I am going to think about how our genre studies can be more flexible, authentic, and purposeful by launching new studies based on what my students are interested in or trying during their projects.
Purpose before genre – I no longer think of my own writing in scopes of genres. Instead, I categorize my writing by purpose: writing to connect (emails, texts, letters), writing to remember (within a journal, iPhone notes, notes when learning) writing to reflect (also within a journal, but usually my own thoughts and feelings), and writing to the world (this blog, twitter). Genres live within and across these categories. We need to give students opportunities to find a purpose for writing, make decisions about which genre will fulfill that purpose, and then use genre-specific skills to do the writing.
Writers need a real, kind audience and friendly feedback – For my kindergartners, finishing a book is a triumph. I’m thinking of all the times they ran up to me, squealing in delight, asking, “Can I read my new book to you?” I hurried kids back to their seats to revise or start something new (because stopping writing to come to the teacher was seen as a hindrance to independence), telling them they’d get a chance to share later. Now that I know the need to celebrate and share my writing after finishing a post, I can understand my students’ same needs. When we put a stop to this, we are taking away real joy writers experience. This year, I will be thinking of ways my students can experience what I have in this blog – the thrill I get when I push the publish button, the connections I’ve made with people around the world, the kindness I experience in comments, how I deepening my thinking by answering questions, and the empowerment of seeing people share my writing. Sadly, we live in a world where this outlet of expressive written freedom isn’t always so kind. As students practice listening and reading writing of others, responding kindly with comments and questions, and providing meaningful (and again, kind) feedback when asked for it, we can hopefully diminish the negativity by the time they are adults.
The choice to publish belongs to the writer – Why do we wait weeks before allowing our students to publish? The frequency of and decision to publish should be up to our writers. In an authentic writing world, there is no one declaring each month, “It’s time to start revising because our unit is over and I planned a publishing party!” I think if we allow students to publish more frequently, they will revise more frequently. I will be thinking of how my students can publish and publicize their writing on a more routine basis. The ownership of publishing needs to be in the student’s hands as well – how to publish, how to share, how to celebrate.
Authentic writing is more than writing demo texts for your students – Many people are saying that to be authentic writing teachers we need to be authentic writers. To do this, we are encouraged to immerse ourselves in the genres we are teaching. There is more to it than that. I never felt authenticity while writing demo texts for my students. Now that I identify as a writer, I can already imagine many ways, deeper ways, to connect with and teach my students — how I determine a purpose and specific audience, how I make messy drafts for my ideas in a notebook, my ongoing battle between revision and perfection, my fears mentioned at the beginning of this post, my writing blocks and hurdles, how sometimes I need to walk away from a piece and sometimes I cannot physically get up until it’s written. Yes, I agree, we must be authentic writers to be authentic writing teachers, but first we must define authenticity in our own lives and in our classrooms.
Writers need empowering and validating conferences – I’m thinking back to a reluctant writer I taught. This student had a wealth of knowledge to share (beyond most adults I know) and a vivid imagination. The level of vocabulary this student used as he dictated his drawings surpassed the level of his phonological awareness. He knew he could not spell the words he wanted to write, and he wanted those words to be spelled perfectly, so he didn’t write them. I tried everything. Some things helped, and he made progress. But, what if I had told this student that by not writing, the world was missing out (and I genuinely believe that to be true). That he was not honoring his unique mind and voice by not writing. What if all of our students grew up knowing the their ideas and voice had power and the ability to make changes in the world, and that they can share their ideas and voice via writing?
Paging through the many circled, starred, and underline quotes in Fletcher’s Joy Write, this one is one I will keep coming back to:
“It’s true that some kids, like some species, may be able to survive and even thrive in this more developed workshop atmosphere. But I submit that many students find today’s writing workshop too narrow and constricting for them to generate any enthusiasm for writing. Those writers would benefit from being allowed to do more writing that is free and unguided–writing that they generate themselves.”