This summer, I attended a writing institute in Emporia, KS — a location for the National Writing Project. The experience was magical, to say the least (literally: I was dubbed “Most Capable of Turning Any Situation Into a Harry Potter Reference”). I learned a great deal about myself as a writer, gathered feedback from writing peers, and acquired a wealth of knowledge on the topic of writing instruction at the elementary and secondary level.
One core belief demanded attention in the weeks after I’d left: My students need to be writing daily. As an English major — writing, not literature or teaching — I had already established this belief; as a new teacher, though, I struggled to incorporate this principle in my daily labors. I wanted my students to write more, I knew they’d become stronger writers if they wrote more . . . but I couldn’t figure out the time thing. Where would I find all the time they needed to just . . . write?
After three years of teaching, one summer institute, and a few weeks of stubbornly (and metaphorically) ramming my head against the same brick wall time and time again, something finally clicked: I teach in a small, rural school with only one other teacher in the English “department” for grades 7-12, and my school doesn’t have a curriculum or scope and sequence. (That’s a new-teacher nightmare for another day, folks.) The one certainty I do have in this one-man-band I call my content area: time.
My students now write approximately 5-10 minutes daily in their Writers Notebooks. We’re in the midst of the fourth week of school, so it still takes some time to settle down and get in the writing “groove” — especially since they usually write at the beginning of class, and they’re still trying to transition from one subject to the next — but I allow them to plug in their headphones while they write, which minimizes the number of conversations that occur.
A few times each week, I use the projector to show my students an intriguing image (usually a foreign location or fantasy illustration) and ask my students to just create. I want them to have fun with words, to learn that writing doesn’t have to mean five-paragraph essays or the “right kind of creativity.”
And they love it.
I write alongside my students. I’ve noticed they’re more likely to hunker down and scribble away if they see me writing, too — in fact, when they see me whip out my pen and notebook, a hush falls over the room. I gaze around the room some as I write, partially to keep an eye on kids and gauge when to stop the writing; partially to let them know it’s okay to look around sometimes, as long as they return to paper at some point.
When we’ve reached a stopping point, I always ask who would like to share. Since we’re in the early stages of the school year, several of my students are still shy. Sharing writing is extremely intimate, even when the stories are make-believe; but I want my students to learn the joys of putting their work out there, of having their voices heard. I want them to learn that sharing writing is no different than putting their woods projects or art projects on display in the hallways or at the end-of-year student show.
So I share my writing, too.
The first time or two, a few kids joked that there was no way they could live up to the work I’d shared. (I promise I’m not doing this for the ego boost.) Despite their jokes, though, I noticed kids becoming enraptured with the stories I created. They’ve come to expect me to share my work. While it’s nice to have an audience (captive though they be), I didn’t start sharing my writing to impress or intimidate. I had an inkling that if I modeled the act of sharing personal writing aloud, my students might be less terrified of taking the author’s chair, themselves.
Here’s what I’ve noticed in just a few weeks:
Hands have begun to shoot up more quickly when I ask, “Who wants to share their writing?” Students have stopped groaning (as much) when I tell them to pull out their journals. Kids no longer snap their notebooks shut the moment I ask them to find a stopping place — they scribble a bit longer, some several minutes longer, and many wait with their notebooks open on their laps or tabletops: an invitation to be asked to read.
Sure, some still drag their feet and a handful can only manage to eke out a sentence or two in ten minutes; but I feel confident that with time, when writing becomes a habit, the words will come more easily.
Today, I shared this photo with my senior English classes. A handful of the more technical-minded boys wrote about how they would improve the structure, while a few penned stories of runaways seeking a place of solitude amid the waves of this lake (or river, or ocean). I shared last, asalways: a fabricated tale of an unloved sea urchin whose shell grew at a rate proportionate to his loneliness.
After I finished reading, the class sat for a moment before one girl blurted out, “Whoa. Is that what happens when you read all the time? You get good at writing and creating stories?”
I laughed a bit, because their notions of “good” writing are a tad generous among high school students; but I was pleased nonetheless because her comment led to a conversation about the importance of reading. These kids are well aware I’m a book hoarder; there’s a whiteboard posted outside my classroom door with weekly updates about the books I’m currently reading. I also may or may not have taken things to an extreme-geek level when I revealed to them my giddy excitement at the arrival of my first Book of the Month Club box.
If I’m lucky, though, my students will begin making that connection between frequent reading a better writing and taking it more seriously; if for no other reason, to improve the works they bring to the collective table during our daily writing time.