Wednesday, January 9, 2019

#WhyIWrite: Helping Students To Find Joy In Writing

            Recently, I finished writing the first draft of my second young adult novel.  I spent over two years of my life brainstorming, writing, deleting, rewriting and deleting some more until eventually I wound up with 75,456 words that admittedly still needed a lot of work, but were decent enough that I now felt somewhat confident to share them with a few of my beta readers and submit to the online program for constructive criticism. The writing process was challenging, tedious, painful, and frustrating - but yet, for some reason,  I persisted and didn't give up.  Because, while writing was definitely all of those horrible things, it was also great; it was rewarding and therapeutic and inspiring.

           Around the same time that I was typing "the end" on my manuscript,  National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) was advertising its National Day of Writing on social media which would be held on October 20th.  Teachers and students across the country were using the hashtag #whyIwrite on social media to share out the reasons why they make the choice to put pen to paper. As a person who listens religiously to writing podcasts (Writerly, Keeping A Notebook and Writing Excuses being the three that I never miss), I find it fascinating to listen to experts detail their own writing processes and divulge secrets about the sources of their muse.  Reading through the #whyIwrite tweets brought me the same inspiration that those podcasts bring.  People talked about wanting to write to share the truth, to understand, to change the world, to work through tough emotional trauma, and to celebrate the aesthetic pleasure that the only the perfect combination of words strung together like pearls on a necklace can bring.

           I bet it doesn't come as any shock to you that not one person - published author, educator, or student - has ever suggested in a podcast or on social media that their inspiration for writing comes from wanting to pass a standardized test or school benchmark assessment. Yet, how many of us only devote time to this type of writing inside our classrooms?  Is it surprising, then, that when we focus solely on school-type writing inside schools that our suggestion that today will be a writing day is met with groans, eye rolls, and trips to the bathroom or school nurse?
          Does it matter?
          I would argue that it does matter.
          In fact I think that developing a generation of passionate writers and readers is probably the most important task we have as educators.
If we want students to grow as critical thinkers, change makers, and doers, they must learn how to communicate via the written and spoken word.  Writing is a powerful tool, one that all students can benefit from as humans. I don't have to inundate you with the research surrounding engagement.  It only makes sense that people tend to spend time on things that they enjoy and brush aside the things that they dislike.  Think about a food you despise.  When was the last time you ordered it at a restaurant?  We don't choose things we hate;  if our students hate to write, they will only do it when we require them to do it.
         In an age where communities and schools have shined a giant spotlight on raising test scores, I would argue that by doing LESS school type writing and more impassioned and authentic writing tasks, test scores would actually increase.   Why?  Because students will come to value writing and its many purposes, and when we value something, we tend to focus more heavily on it.  That's human nature.
            So what might the switch to more impassioned writing experiences look like inside a classroom?  How do we focus on authentic types of writing experiences inside my classroom when we am responsible for reporting out on learning targets in a standards based reporting system?

 Let's look at couple of the real reasons people choose to write and connect them to school experiences and even some learning standards:

1.   Writing is Therapeutic - In 2002, Bridget Murray discussed the research conducted by the American Medical Association in her article "Writing To Heal"  that found people with various autoimmune diseases who wrote about their stress for twenty minutes a day for four months showed improved immune function and less than control patients.  It is no secret that writing can be a form of stress reduction and even help a person to uncover his or her true feelings about an event.  With the push in education to increase socio-emotional learning experiences for all students, daily routine writing experiences in classrooms are a must:

What might this look like in the English classroom?  

  • Routine journal writing connected to the day's reading:  Giving students a chance to free write, exploring how they feel about a decision a character made or a connection to their own life or current news events, for example, helps them to see that writing can be used to sort out feelings.  Not all writing is analytic in nature or needs to be graded.  Journal writing offers students an outlet for the things on their mind and gives them a safe place to explore feelings they may be grappling with on their own.                                                                         Common Core Target:  All speaking and listening targets require students to be able to sift through their thinking and share it with others. Many students will feel more comfortable doing this if they've had some time to reflect on topics in writing before having to speak to their peers) 
  • Poetry -  Poetry can sometimes seem daunting to students, but if they are repeatedly exposed to beautiful pieces of poetry -including modern day song lyrics and current spoken word poetry - students will begin to see poetry for the art that it is.  It also offers a creative outlet - devoid of rules - that enables them to explore their feelings which as I've explained earlier, has therapeutic benefits.                                                                                                          Common Core Target Connection:  Analysis of poetry runs rampant in the Common Core literature targets (especially in 7th grade).  Students will develop a much deeper ability to analyze the work of others and the choices they make if they are taught to write and make those choices for themselves first.  See my blog for further thoughts on why this works.
  • Letter Writing  -  In an age of text messaging, letter writing is quickly becoming a lost art.  But giving students an opportunity to communicate with their peer via written conversations as opposed to oral ones can often develop a love of writing as well as help build a stronger community of trust inside the classroom, an essential ingredient if we want our students to grow as learners.
2.    Writing helps us share our unique stories with others.  Reading about others' experiences leads us to want to share our own stories as well.  Reading ultimately becomes the inspiration for writing.  Wasn't it Stephen King who said, "If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write?"  If anyone knows what inspires writers, a best selling author who has written over eighty books should.  We are fortunate to exist in a time where the literacy world is working to increase the amount of books written by and about people from diverse backgrounds.  The #WeNeedDiverse Books campaign has helped to bring stories from talented authors of diverse backgrounds into the hands of kids everywhere.  This organization has helped the publishing arena, educators, and librarians alike to recognize that all children should have the experience of growing up and see themselves inside the books that they read.  Additionally, grass roots programs like Project Lit Community have similar goals and are continually working to provide students with the opportunity to read great books in school that veer from the typical white male canon of the past.  Giving students these experiences helps them to see that they, too, can excel at writing.  Their stories not only matter, but they are necessary if we want to work to build a future that is empathetic and celebratory of people's unique differences.

What might this look like in the English classroom?  

  • Using diverse books as mentor texts -  Nothing inspires great writing more than a great read. As teachers, we can use a piece of a book to teach a skill and have students mimic the author's style with a topic of their own choice.  In many of my college level writing workshop courses this skills was called imitation. Kelly Gallagher, author and teacher extraordinaire,  has made it famous in his books like Write Like This where he goes into detail on how to teach students to write alongside some great writing pieces in an effort to learn from the experts.  This strategy helps strengthen a writer's skill set but also helps them to also better understand the reading on a deeper level while not doing any type of "school writing" at all.  Last year, seventh grade teachers in my school held a "Poe or Faux?" Competition in their classes where students tried to imitate Poe's writing after having read some of his short stories.  Their classmates then were given excerpts from Poe and classmates and had to determine which was which. 

    • Book clubs - Provide students with choice of reading materials making sure to offer a variety of diverse authors who offer perspectives that both match and differ from the students in your class.  As adults, we would never join a book club if all the books were selected for us.  We need to offer student a myriad of options, so that they can find books that speak to them and find that passion that can only come for discovering a great read.                                                 
    • Independent Reading -  While some loud voices in education might lead you to believe that "research" does not support giving student time to read in school, those of us working in schools  every day have been fortunate enough to witness first hand the magical that can only come from putting the right book in the hands of a nonreader who finishes it overnight after starting it in class and can't wait to ask "What should I read next?"  It's our duty as educators to offer a variety of diverse perspectives for our students.  When a student is inspired by a book we might be able to excite them to write fan fiction or other creative endeavors that are not "school type" writing but will ultimately foster a love of writing and create stronger writers as a result.  Reading and writing are not separate entities;  we need to help students see the connections between the two. 
    • Common Core Connection:  All literature reading and writing targets can be taught as easily inside a choice unit as they can be inside a whole class unit.  Smaller shared literature and informational text pieces connecting around a theme could also be used.  
    Ultimately, writing is (like music, painting, and dance) an art and should be treated as such.  I could carry on for hours about art for arts sake, but instead I will remind us all that arts help foster creativity and problem solving skills that spill into other arenas of our lives.  Our world desperately needs creative types.  While school type writing has its time and place in the curriculum, finding ways for students to creatively explore current reads and giving them opportunities to write without fear of "breaking the rules" is the key to creating a future generation that enjoys writing and can communicate effectively into the next century.  Words are beautiful.  They are powerful.  They are so much more powerful than a numerical score on a rubric gives them credit for.

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