[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 one entry in an intended series devoted to reflections, musings, and captured wisdom that results from our book study readings and discussions. See how it started here.]
The DVD that accompanies Children Want to Write is a treasure trove of additional fodder for reflective teachers. When introducing the reading assignment for our session (chapters 1 & 2), I prepared colleagues to expect the featured video for chapter 2, “The Mother of the Story,” to be part of our discussion. Together we viewed the clip in which one young writer, Debbie, articulates what writing is really about—for her.
During the group viewing, I asked colleagues to watch the video specifically to identify characteristics of this student that made her a writer. The interview Lucy Calkins conducts with Debbie emphasizes her identity as a writer. She describes her ownership of her writing, expressing how she is in control of the choices and decisions related to her work. While she honors the influence of others in her writing community, she knows she is ultimately the decision-maker, or “the mother of the story.”
In the resulting conversation, my colleagues and I reflected on the conditions that are currently in place in our writing workshops, and we dreamed aloud of what we would like to see and do in order to promote such self-awareness and high levels of reflection in our own students. We want to nurture our students towards the development of their own writing identities.
Debbie’s confidence in describing herself as a writer and her relationship to her writing is evidence of the active role she assumed as a writer. She showed deep investment in her writing and owned her ideas. She was comfortable taking chances, and changing her mind or standing her ground. She recognized an intrinsic reward in writing.
Comparatively, I frequently encounter students who are more passive, operating from a position in which writing is something done “to” them, given as an assignment or a consequence. Risk taking weighs them down, and fear of having nothing "good enough" to write paralyzes them from the start. The act of writing is not yet internalized and ownership of the writing is not yet actualized.
How do we make the shift?
I take hints at ways to begin from Graves’ wisdom about writers and vulnerability and value.
Students need opportunities to see themselves in the role of a writer. I need to empower them with words and wide-reading experiences, and I need to gift them with time. I can instill this idea by calling them writers, and reminding them they are. I can involve them in partnerships with other writers, including myself, stretching their potential as developing writers. I can create ways to share and celebrate their writing.
Students need to experience that they have ideas worth thinking, exploring, and sharing through writing. I need to validate that their ideas have worth. I can cheerlead their efforts, honor the personal nature of their work, and recognize the risk that is involved. I can help students increase their comfort with vulnerability by being a vulnerable writer myself.
Students need to find acceptance, through discovery, that writing is often imperfect, sometimes unfinished, unpublished, and/or private and not shared with a wider audience. I can de-emphasize final drafts and publishing. I can model more exploratory writing and be an example of a writer who doesn’t perfect every piece I begin. I can to broaden students’ perception of what writing is.
Debbie was a writer. By accepting vulnerability and internalizing the value of her written work, Debbie developed her identity as a writer. With some intentional choices to promote these habits in our writing workshop, so can our students.