NCTE18 Reflection: The necessity of writing

Writing shapes and reflects our identity.
Our written voice is how we find ourselves. — Katherine Bomer

These words offered at an NCTE18 session linger with me. What this means about the necessity of writing.

In the pursuit of teaching students to write, we have overemphasized and overwhelmed students with the how. We give them the form to put it in. We show them how we want it to look. We tell them how we will score them. In this process of how we have forgotten the essential reason to write. To share ourselves.

Later in the session, Donna Santman asked, what do we actually believe? And then she said, we are conflicted.  She said the input is the output. And at the time, I thought I knew what she meant.  I thought no, I’m not conflicted. I know what I believe.

I’ve never been conflicted about the absolute necessity of reading and the role it plays in creating happiness and a healthy humanity.  I’ve never doubted the essential nature of it. To quote Kylene Beers, “Reading for information is about saving our democracy. Reading for pleasure is about saving ourselves.”  But I don’t believe I felt that way about writing. It’s good to write. But is it essential? There lies the conflict that I didn’t know I had.

Looking back on Katherine’s words, I realized something I haven’t been able to own. Writing is necessary to live a good life. Not only in schools as a precursor to a high stakes assessment. And not to be justified by a practical need or even artistic pursuit, Writing is a necessary step in the discovery of our world and ourselves.

Now connect the idea of identity to the writer’s voice,  Katherine wisely asked us to name that voice we hear in our student’s writing. Describe it specifically. Acknowledging its identity. How could this not be an essential way we spend our time with children?  To coach them towards their truths because writers look for truths. In themselves and in the world around them.

And even with all of that, I must be careful to value all voices. The strange. The angry. The silly. Couldn’t that be precisely what might surface? My idea of good is not necessarily valuable. The idea of searching and trying things on is essential to growth.  Remember to cherish the process as well as the product; don’t devalue worlds I don’t inhabit.

I think about the writer’s notebooks that live in my students’ desks and backpacks. And wonder, what percent of it is directed by me. What is purely them? What time have I committed to allowing them to venture and discover their voice?



Slice of Life: Unconventional nonfiction reading

According to my students and retailers, the holiday season is here. Days off, the promise of gifts, parties with family and friends. Today, as we walked toward our room, one student shared what many were thinking. He’d rather be at home.

Fortunately, there were a few things that made being at school almost as good as a long weekend. After the last few chapters of  Zane and the Hurricane, we went into a culminating part of one of TCRWP’s reading unit, Reading the Weather. This unit is a favorite not only because of the engaging subject matter but because of how students take nonfiction reading and share it in unconventional ways.

For the past three weeks, students have researched a particular area of interest: hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis or earthquakes. Today, they were to craft their presentations.

The what to, how to, and who will present their work to another student group was all up to the team. Poster boards, notecards, tape, glue, scissors, markers were everywhere.

Some had been planning for the last week.
Others just got the sense of urgency. “Tomorrow? Like ALL of it ready?”

They worked, and ideas kept surfacing. More materials were requested.

“You know this paper could make a great cape,” said team member in charge of the effects of tsunamis.

“And how is that connected to tsunamis?” asked co-member in charge of historical tsunamis.

They worked through their recess. And their lunch.

As I walked students to the buses, student team member in charge of safety during tsunamis was sharing her giant blue wave with a student from another fourth-grade class. She put her head through the hole at the top, and said, “Tomorrow we get to teach!”

Unconventional fun nonfiction reading. Almost as good as a long weekend.


The Miraculous Work of Essay

The writing about ideas can be confusing for young people. So when we started our essay unit, students had little understanding of what was ahead. And, I wasn’t sure we would figure it out. This was a unit based on faith and total acceptance of possible failure.

Most started telling a story or an all about. Ideas were few and far between. It wasn’t until a few approximated this type of writing and served as mentors, did the majority of the class understand what they were going for.  To see how writing about ideas could go, they needed each other’s work.

And once they got that, it didn’t matter where they started, most found ideas through writing.  Some stayed close to their beginning ideas, and some wandered off towards unsuspected territories.  They had incorporated a bit of story, a bit of information, a bit of opinion and a bit of did you know.  Ideas were discovered, played with and in the end even questioned as each piece was written.

Most wrote about what mattered to them. Friends and not friends, video games and youtube, being a sibling and being bullied. They wrote about what they believed in and who are and why.

We celebrated their work yesterday. In small groups. Quietly reading and then, some students chose to share with the whole class. So interesting who wanted to share. A popular student’s piece on bullies; a quiet student’s exploration of why she is shy, a student’s reflection on why nine-year-olds are addicted to technology.

On a Friday, my active, typically noisy group sat quietly and appreciated the work of their classmates.

And when all was said and done asked, can we write another one?

The adventure was uncertain. It could have been a disaster. But I believe it proved the power and importance of writing. For everyone. This is why we need to write. To discover and tell who we are and what we think. A miraculous journey.