Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Too Many "Would-be-Writers" (Children Want to Write #1)

[As a member of my school’s Leadership Team, I have volunteered to facilitate a monthly book study using the text Children Want to Write: Donald Graves and the Revolution in Children’s Writing. This is intended to be the inaugural entry in a series devoted to reflections, musings, and captured wisdom that results from our book study readings and discussions.]

Why this book, and why now?

            It seems each year I work at puzzling through negativity in students around writing. Reluctant writers, they’ve been called. They have been characterized as unwilling, difficult, and/or unable. Yet, I wonder if my classroom make-up has been comprised of “would-be-writers,” as in, students who would want to write and would enjoy writing if they had a chance to be writers.

            I’m fearful that in an effort to deliver good writing instruction, we may have actually exacerbated the challenges of writing by establishing conditions in which students have been expected to write as a performance, an attempt to meet certain specifications as outlined by their teachers. Conversations with students often reveal that writing is perceived as a task or assignment to be completed, something that is done to fulfill teachers’ directions. Do we create this by imposing routines and structures with too many parameters and prompts in an attempt to “cover” writing objectives?

           Donald Graves’ work describes the necessity of a different outlook. Graves’ writings and research cause us to slow down as practitioners, and he refocuses us on the students…the writers. Children Want to Write is a compilation of Graves’ work that invites teachers to slow down, to reflect, and to consider what it means to be a writer—both by engaging in the practice of writing ourselves and by trying on the mindset of our students to understand their development as writers.

            I accepted this invitation from Graves (through the work of Penny Kittle and Tom Newkirk) in the summer months, spending days with my copy of Children Want to Write. My own thinking and reflection, scrawled in the margins and in and around the text, prompted a freshness for me in returning to writing workshop in the fall—I was enthused about inviting students to write, and I was a renewed writer myself. When the opportunity arose in my school community to propose titles of professional texts to be considered for a building-wide book study, Children Want to Write was atop my list. I enthusiastically shared my hope that this work would become a basis for wide reaching discussion about writing instruction. I hoped others would have a stirring reaction to the text and that it would inspire us to create conditions school-wide to develop writers, to guide students in self-discovery through writing, to facilitate a shift in student affect towards writing.

            After reading the first chapter herself, Graves’ strong invitation to teachers of writing to be writers themselves sparked my principal with energy to encourage our staff to engage in writing themselves. Hoping to encourage us, she enlisted the PTA’s support to purchase Moleskin notebooks for each participating staff member. Each book study session incorporates at least one invitation to write with an optional prompt for those who want a starting place.

            Our work with Children Want to Write is significant and important, a message emphasized in the choice to hold our book study sessions during reserved staff meeting times. This communicates that the work we are doing as a learning community is worth the investment of time and energy. Our book study group includes classroom teachers, special education teachers, our literacy coach and interventionists, and our principal. The experience of the group ranges from those who were fortunate to hear Graves speak in person at the onset of his revolution to first year teachers who are absorbing his influence eagerly, having been impacted by the work of Graves in their own formative years.

            The shared conversations, the commitment to deeper learning about writing instruction that positively impacts students, the redirection to the writers we are developing…these things make me hopeful. I am hopeful that Children Want to Write, and what we as professionals do with it, can be a catalyst to change writing for our students in big ways. I am hopeful that we can create an environment for learning with fewer “would-be-writers” and more students (and teachers) who proudly identify themselves as writers.

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