As I read Kathi Yancey's recent report Writing in the 21st Century one thing stood out: the best way teachers can improve writing is to make writers visible.
We know that people everywhere write. We write for ourselves, for our families, for our communities, and for the world at large. We write for whoever will read what we have to say—for our friends, parents, children, classmates, teachers, employers, and coworkers. We write letters to the editor, to the mayor, to Congress, and to the President. We write personal thoughts that no one else will ever read, and we write public pleas for help and understanding, praying that someone will listen.
We all write—and we all write no matter what. No matter how difficult. Even if our families and friends do not support us. Regardless of social pressures that tell us not to. Despite the fact that there are laws that say we may not. When there are millions of reasons not to. Although no one else may read a word. Even knowing that our writing is not perfect. We write. We write, as Yancey says, "in spite of" it all (1).
What has that got to do with making writers visible? When writing is forbidden or undervalued, it becomes invisible. When family and friends and society and even the law say that our writing does not matter, we compose in hiding.
We delete our MySpace pages. We hide our blogs. We create anonymous logins to post on Wikipedia. We write only in word processor files that we protect with passwords and in diaries that we hide in the sock drawer. We write letters that we can never send and poems that we'll never share in class. We learn that that only certain writing counts and that only certain people are truly writers. Our texts disappear, and so do we.
To support 21st century writers, teachers need to make writers visible. It just takes three simple things to get started:
- Welcome all writing.
Writers express themselves in text messages, blog posts, and wiki entries. They compose fan fiction, angry rants, and email messages. They write reviews on Amazon, item descriptions on eBay, and status updates on Twitter and Facebook. And sure, in the classroom, they write test answers, book reports, and journal entries. We have to recognize, value, and allow everything. Not just the customary classroom genres. All writing matters.
- Call students writers.
That's right. It's the simplest and most effective thing teachers (and families) can do. From the beginning, we need to recognize students as writers. Not "student writers," and certainly not just "students." They are writers, no matter how much they write or how polished their writing may be. When people believe they are writers, a whole world of possibilities opens up.
- Celebrate all writers equally.
There is no special admissions test you have to pass to become a writer. The texts written in the classroom are just as important as those published in the textbooks. Make every writer in the classroom a role model. Use great openings by students alongside those in the textbook. Share effective word choice by students at the same time you share the diction of Maya Angelou or William Shakespeare. Emphasize that students don't have to aspire to be writers—they are writers, and every writer matters.
Three simple things, but it's no magic formula. It's more than that. These practices change the classroom and the ways that students think about writing. They build a community that supports 21st century writing and values all the writing students do, inside and outside of school. It encourages students to write freely in any genre or forum they choose. In short, it builds a space where students write visibly and publicly because of what happens in the classroom, rather than "in spite of" all the reasons not to.