The early months of a school year excite me because my students surprise me. Their insights are fresh and pure. Their life experiences with reading and writing come out with sincerity. Most are not used to being asked about their reading and writing lives. And they don't know just how similar their lives are...and how connected their experiences are to decades of research.
When Grace, and 8th grader, spoke with me I was moved (in the moment) by how often she used certain words:
Grace, like so many kids who speak with me, used to read and write on her own. In our podcast, Grace describes sitting under chairs and desks in her elementary school classrooms. In these cozy sanctuaries, Grace passed notebooks of original stories to friends. Friends wrote feedback. Friends spoke feedback. And children were living a writing workshop without grades or standards.
And Grace reminds us that she loved it.
It is bittersweet to her adolescents talk about reading and writing in the past tense. But I want to focus on what is there, on what Grace identified as useful, and what I might rekindle for her and her classmates. Grace tells me that she and her friends would make up stories and tell them to each other--in her words, "most of us just made them up in our minds and then we told each other when we played."
While I can't think of anything more charming than children playing and sharing invented, fantastical, dreamy stories where anything, anything at all is possible--I keep coming back to why Grace enjoyed her sanctuary beneath the desk.
Under Grace's desk there were no rules, no corrections, no harsh judgements, no neurotic focus on what was wrong. And this matters. I think about this a lot because kids tell this to me over and over when they are given the opportunity to speak about what works for them during the process of composing.
Grace reminds us "when [students] have such rigid guidelines [students] get so nervous about [their] writing." You'll hear it in the podcast. And I think Grace is wise because I think Grace is honest and sincere. So, soon after that statement when you hear her say, "I loved it. I loved it so much" you'll forgive my noting that this is a bittersweet moment for all of us in education.
So many of us love our profession, and we work hard to do right by our kids. But our kingdom has been mortgaging love and joy from our kids and both are very difficult for adolescents to recapture without our help today. It isn't too late. But much like how they lost their love in the first (through the interference of the decisions of adults), we have to be the models and mentors in their lives to help them find that love and joy again--because it will be almost impossible for them to do it alone.
Credit: music by Ben Smith at bensmithsongs.com
As the second season of my classroom podcast begins, I have to give a nod of thanks to educator, writer, and pioneer Donald Graves. As a reader and re-reader of Graves, I continue to learn the value of listening to my students. Through listening to children, adolescents, and teenagers explain what they do when they compose a piece of writing, we become better teachers--or, at least, we create the conditions by which we can become better teachers.
I sat down with two 8th graders, Gillian and Paige, and simply asked them to tell me about their reading and writing life. It is September and I am still building my knowledge base of each of my new, young writers.
Early on in the podcast, Gill and Paige share their perceptions of themselves as writers. And, as it so often happens, a student will say something that sparks a deeper conversation...and deeper learning.
Both students tell me that they write outsides of school, but Gill tells me that she and her friends wrote together outside of school.
Any scent of collaboration with writing strikes a note with me ever since I read the Carnegie Foundation's research report on the state of writing--Writing Next: Effective strategies to improve writing of adolescents in middle and high schools. Collaboration proves to be among the most valuable strategies cited in the research.
And here are my students talking about collaborating over writing on their own.
As you listen to the podcast, consider the significance of what each girl states in her own way: we are all close friends, and we are comfortable with each other.
My students remind me of the significance of taking the time to build a writing community, of making sure students have writing partners, and of creating the conditions of trust--at least trust with one other person in the room. Of course, I want my students to come to trust me as a writing mentor, but they need more than me in our writing community.
I am just one of classroom of writers and classroom of mentors.
Encouragement moves writers. And there are more of them than there are of me in the classroom. Students can learn how to talk about writing in a supportive and helpful manner. They actually already have an instinct for it--of how it works and when it does not work.
Paige teaches me, "it gets kind of weird when you don't know that person [in your writing group]...you don't know how far you can argue...[referring to her friends] we've known each other for so long that I couldn't even call it argument [when they disagree over a piece of writing]...I think of it more like we are sharing ideas even if we don't agree..."
My students remind me that compromise is easier with people you know and trust...and that their sincere intention is that everyones ideas work out because, "when you are closer, you want everyone included in on it."
While the start of the school year can often feel so busy that it is like we are drinking from a fire hose, make some decisions to invest time in building a writing community. Our kids want one. And our kids know when we are not committed to becoming a community of writers.