Let’s face it, many kids just don’t like writing. In fact, if we’re really honest, many teachers don’t enjoy writing either. Not teaching it. Not assessing it. And especially not modeling it for students. Because many of us were spoon-fed (or force-fed) a writing curriculum that focused on formulas instead of freedom. We were taught that writing was more about counting paragraphs than it was about a creative process. Writing for many of us was akin to other necessary unpleasantries, like forcing yourself to swallow grandma’s “secret-recipe” rhubarb pie, or being at a family re-union and needing to use the forest preserve porta-potties on a hot summer day. Writing was required, not inspired. You choked it down, often times gagging as you went. This type of writing paradigm doesn’t create writers, anymore than forcing our children to ingest kale smoothies magically creates young adults who value a lifestyle of physical fitness.
So how can we develop an instructional menu that invites students to enjoy writing as a staple of their diet?
1. Make it the Most Important Meal of the Day.
Breakfast is widely considered the most important meal of your day. It breaks your overnight fast. It supplies you with the necessary nutrients to jump-start your day. It sets the tone for the rest of your eating.
While I’m not here to say that writing is the most important subject, it is present in every aspect of a student’s education. They must learn to communicate, articulate, support and defend their ideas in writing, whether in science, math, or group collaboration. And the most important writing truth is that in order to be a better writer, you must write frequently. As educators, we must provide consistent, daily time to play and experiment with words, ideas, sounds, structures and flows. We have to carve out time for students to reflect, listen, share, scribble, wrestle, and write, so they can begin to identify themselves as writers.
2. Celebrate that Captain Crunch Has Many Flavors.
Peruse any breakfast aisle in the grocery store and you’ll see a plethora of choices and varieties. You and I may have grown up on regular Captain Crunch, but there are Chocolatey, Peanut Butter, and Sprinkled Donut Crunch also. We may have eaten an apple or an orange for breakfast, but there are mangoes, pomegranates, dragon fruits and musk melons. The breakfast world is much larger and more diverse than what we grew up in.
Likewise, as writing instructors, we must expose students to diverse books, allowing them to sample many flavors from a diverse world. We must bring in books about girls from Afghanistan, boys from Peru, and teens of races other than our own. We must bring in stories of children overcoming physical obstacles, children struggling through war-torn regions, and children creating new technologies. Heroines with dark skin. Multi-racial families. Students dealing with physical, emotional, or mental disorders. If children only see a narrow spectrum of a global society, how will they learn to celebrate their own diversity, or write from diverse perspectives? Urging student choice leads to an emerging student voice.
3. Pink Hearts, Red Balloons and Green Clovers – Savor the Lucky Charms of Student Writing.
Okay, I’ll admit it. My favorite cereal growing up was Lucky Charms. Probably not the healthiest choice. But it was better than not eating anything. And to think that now you can buy boxes of just the marshmallows! Why did I like it? It was sweet off course! Amidst the unpleasant little oats there were these colorful gems waiting to be mined.
Student writing is very similar. Heck, so is mine! There might be a lot of bland filler to get through to find the sweet spots. The writing gems. But they are there. As Katherine Bomer reminds us in her book, Hidden Gems, our job as teachers is to first find those gems, and specifically name them. We need to hold them up to students, and encourage the precious aspects of their writing that they can build upon. When students see that we can find the good in their writing, they begin to see it as well, and then start creating more and more precious gems that make their writing truly shine.
4. They’re Grrrreat! You’re Grrrreat!
Writing is truly an act of courage. It takes bravery to create stories and craft ideas, and then share that creation with others. It takes vulnerability, and daring greatly. Especially because most of us have an inner critic that tells us our writing is crap. It whispers that you have nothing of value to say. The voice that celebrates the works of others, while shaming your own by comparison. The voice that insinuates that you are not really qualified to teach writing to students, because writing isn’t your strong suit.
Students need you to face that critic, and give it the universal middle finger. Because they wrestle with that same voice, and when you model the courage to write, despite your own inner naysayer, you help unleash your students from the critic’s shackles. Student (and teacher) writers go from lost, to found. You move from timid, to tigers. You transition from identifying yourselves as members of a writing class, to claiming your identities as writers.
5. Nutrition Facts: Vitamin B True to Your Story.
There is a lot of pressure for student writing to follow certain formulas. Subtle stereotypes. Once-upon-a-times with happy endings. But life is messy. Relationships are messy. Learning is messy. Authentic writing is messy. Teach your students that they don’t have to modify their writing for the sake of popular trends, or to garner greater appeal. Teach them that their story is valuable, because it is uniquely theirs. Help them understand that not every happy ending, ends happily. Sometimes Romeo dies. Sometimes the bully isn’t next door, but in the same house. Sometimes good kids have to deal with bad health. Genuine writing can be more appealing than the current popular trends, because it resonates with readers’ own experiences.
6. Realize There is No Spoon.
So how do we teach writing the right way?
As Neo learned in The Matrix, we have to understand that there is no spoon.
As I’ve spoken to authors over the years, one universal truth consistently emerges. There are many ways to generate ideas. There are many ways to outline. There are many ways to develop characters, setting and plot.
But there is no one right way. There is no singular approach that works for all writers. Some of my students need graphic organizers. Some need notecards. Some use their journal with pen and paper. Some write with tablets. Some love to create fiction, while others prefer poetry, memoir, or how-to pieces. The key is to expose them to many strategies and tools, showing them the benefits of each, and then see what works best for each individual writer. Remember the hat that you got as a giveaway at the discount store’s grand opening? The tag that read OSFA? It’s wasn’t a writer’s hat, because writing isn’t a one-size fits all endeavor. It is unique. It is creative. It is personal.
We can raise a generation healthy writers. We can rescue writing from the dredges of a crystalized, sanitized, compartmentalized process, and deliver it to our students as the messy, frightening, creative, exhilarating, vulnerable, liberating craft that it genuinely is. We can save writing from being relegated to merely a “school” subject, and free students to understand that writing is a language of reflection, creation, discussion and discovery. It is a universal language, a universal expression, and a universal gift.
* Note: Thanks for the editorial feedback of Michele Knott and Phyllis Sutton who gave of their time to help me craft this piece.