Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Three Simple Things You Can Do to Improve Writing

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.



Leslie Wilson said...

Thank you simplifying writing! I am a third grade teacher and I have come to hate writing time in my classroom. Perhaps I am getting lost in the various writing lessons and thinking that my students have to produce perfect writing pieces. Your story reminded me that the most important thing is for kids to be writing and to be acknowledged. If I can make them feel that their writing is worthwhile, maybe the rest will come easier!

Renee said...

Once upon a time, while I was lamenting to a friend of mine that I had no right to call myself a writer, she said, "You write. That makes you a writer."

We should do the same for our students. :-)

laurasalas said...

I love this post! I'm a children's writer and poet, and I'm doing K-6 school visits today and tomorrow. One thing I always try to emphasize to the kids is that their voices matter and that they can write poetry and find poetry that matches their personality, their mood, and their skills.

Thanks for this reminder as I head out the door!

Lauren Small said...

As a teacher of creative writing, I struggle to make my students believe in themselves as writers. As a YA author myself, whenever I speak in schools about my novel, I make sure to talk to students about the writing process. When they hear that even authors struggle to get their words down on paper, it makes them feel better about their own writing.

SRU Environmental Committee said...

Where did we ever get the idea that our writing represented the sum total of who and what we are???

Anonymous said...

These are great ideas indeed. As a teacher of VA SOL's, writing like blogs, texts, and comments about products will do little on the writing test. As a teacher, I have until March 6th 2009 to get my students ready for the SOL test. This test does not include all forms of writing, , unfortunately.

Mindy E. said...

I keep saying these exact things in job interviews, and I get the impression that the interviewers sometimes think I am "light" on writing. I would add one other simple thing to improve writing: read.

Anonymous said...

Reading and writing is FUNdamental and another aspect is the hand-written messages, which are good for helping students think more about what they are writing.

SingleSpeed? said...

Mindy E., I don't know if you're applying for teaching jobs, but I thought I'd say you're not alone.

I've been teaching since 1986 and until recently very few of my students wrote and thought like writers. Then I started adding blogging, postings, Netflix reviews, Amazon book reviews and such to my students' assignments. Now my co-workers look to me as though I'm "light" on writing too--as well as being a bit light in the head.

I can't prove that my students write better than others when it comes to standardized writing tests, but I know this--my students are thinking through their writing. They are pondering medieval attitudes and today's attitudes re: beauty and sexuality as they read Chaucer. They are comparing the context, themes, and impact of today's music with that of previous generations as they read the Song of Roland. They are imagining what might Macbeth, the porter, or Hecate post on their 25 Random Things Facebook pages. They may not be writing an essay or 5 paragraph paper every week, but they are writing passionately and requesting more writing assignments. They are using the written word to communicate their thoughts, ideas, and feelings.

Mindy E., say what you need to the interviewers, and then go empower your writers.

P.S. Two things: 1) Read? Yes. Good Stuff. Tons of it. 2) I bet our kids will have good test scores.

Anonymous said...

As students read and attempt to make sense of written materials, they are involved in a process which helps them think more clearly. If they also try to make themselves understood by relaying information in this way, they are bound to become more able to communicate. this is the essence of education, to help students (and people in general) to become better communicators. Furthermore, if this communcation is pure in style, grammar and content, every other aspect of life can begin to improve.

Lorraine Caplan said...

My favorite professor has a wonderful statement about writing. She says, "Writing is a means of coming to know." That sums it all up for me and has become my mantra in teaching and parenting.

Lorraine Caplan

Teacher said...

Your three points are profound. Our writing does have different purposes and different audiences, but it is all writing. And when we teach writing we need to model this acceptance of different forms of writing.

I have found that creative writing exercises and edublogging give students confidence in their own voice and help them to write a good five-paragraph essay.

Thank you for the affirmation for all writers and all types of assignments.

Jen Sekella said...

I, too, teach in Virginia and our writing essay SOL is on the 5th of March - this Thursday. I have found that I need to do more to get the kids to "THINK BIG" and to embrace their own voices and write with figurative language. I feel like writing for an SOL is a technique that's easy to figure out - especially if they can get everything into at least 5 paragraphs. But the real fun is with the poetry and creative writing. I'll have to see if I can do a wiki, blog, or glog with the kids' poems in the next three-four weeks.

Lauren SJU said...

I appreciate the focus of this entry on writers themselves. Students often become caught up in the formality of school assignments that they lose sight of writing itself as not only a form of expression, but also as a very intricate and personal process.

Kären said...

Call them writers? Indeed...I love to call my students fellow writers. In my classes we write together, talk writing, even celebrate words... diagramming sentences lets us view the reason and logic of the Engish language from the inside out. My goal: when my seventh graders leave my classroom on the last day of school, they are confident judges of their own writing.

We write for a variety of audiences, but our favorites: the AP highschool seniors who score our essays for a mock state assessment; beloved authors and poets whose creative works have influenced our lives; each other to whom we address friendly letters signed with our top-secret pseudonyms; strangers to whom cryptic notes are written then taped under desks, shelves, and tables in hopes they'll be discovered and answered someday.

Kids are aware that writing, though painful and difficult, always has the potential of being fun. In the end, it's the learning that makes writing worthwhile.

Jeanie said...

Yes, we need to celebrate students' work in our classrooms, but we should also help students learn what makes writing good.

Most of my college developmental skills students see themselves as published writers -- after all, they've got MySpace pages -- but writing that will serve them in good careers is something else. It will not develop for many who believe their current levels of 3rd to 6th grade skills constitute creative brilliance or that if they can just palm off a few stolen papers to get past English requirements, they'll be earning 6K salaries for their "real" talents.
[Though maybe I'm wrong; dishonesty seems to be the order of the day, lately. Perhaps that is the skill we value most.]

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