Monday, October 19, 2009

4 Ways to Inspire a Love of Writing

Tuesday, October 20, 2009 is the first National Day on Writing and the unveiling of the current submissions in the National Gallery of Writing. It’s the day that NCTE asks us “to draw attention to the remarkable variety of writing we engage in, and to help writers from all walks of life recognize how important writing is to their lives.”

The celebration of writing across the United States this week will draw the attention of students, teachers, and the rest of the world, but how do we sustain this focus on writing? Here are some simple things that you can do to foster a love of writing in children, teens, and adults:

  1. Focus on personal connections.
    Writers need readers. They need someone to connect to what they write. A nod of agreement. A smile. A tear. The slightest gesture can go a long way in telling a writer you understand what she is saying. Once writers begin connecting with people, they realize the true power of writing.

    When you read someone else’s text, connect on a personal level. Make comments that relate your reactions as a reader directly to the writer’s work. You can use sentences like "Your description here reminded me of [some experience you’ve had or something you have seen]” or “I understand how you felt in this section because I had the same thing happen to me.” Don’t be afraid to share your own stories in order to build these connections. The heady buzz that comes when writers connect with readers is what hooks people on writing.
  2. Help writers see choices.
    Writers like to make their own choices. The more control writers have, the more engaged they are in writing. Choice makes writers active participants in the writing that they do. Help writers see the choices they have by connecting writing to the issues and topics that they care about.

    Ask writers to tell you what interests them, what stirs their emotions, or what they can’t do without. For a book talk or movie review, ask what characters they liked or disliked, what parts they identified with, or whether they’d put the piece on their list of “must haves.” For a persuasive slide show or debate presentation, ask them how they feel about the topic or how it affects them personally. Use their responses to help them decide what to write about and to encourage them to get started. When writing is a choice, people become excited and interested in the process.
  3. Recognize all writing as important.
    Every day, people everywhere are writing massive amounts of text. There are to-do lists, short notes left on the refrigerator, email messages to friends, blog entries, status updates on Twitter and Facebook, and more. Too often, people think the only writing that counts is printed on clean sheets of paper. Counter this belief. Remind people that all writing matters.

    Say something when writers update frequently on Twitter, post blog entries, and send out links to their latest web pages. Recognizing writing is as simple as commenting that you read it. Try saying something like “Wow, you were busy. You wrote a lot today” or “That email message you wrote really got me thinking.” Or better yet, don’t say it—reply in writing!
  4. Call people writers.
    I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. The simplest and most effective thing you can do to encourage people to love writing is to call them writers. From the beginning, recognize children, teens, and adults 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.

    You are a writer when you believe that you are—and once people believe they are writers, they are on the path to a life-long love of writing.

Make today and every day a day on writing. For more tips on encouraging people to write, check out these great resources:

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The National Day on Writing: A Community Effort

When I met with my principal this fall to discuss how our school might participate in the National Day on Writing, we knew right away that we wanted to convey a belief in the value of writing to communicate about things that are important to us. We decided to create a local gallery within the National Gallery that would celebrate our school community and invite participation from as broad a spectrum as possible—students, alumni, families, teachers and staff, and retirees.

We announced our gallery to teachers at a monthly staff meeting, which began with everyone making a list of all the writing they had done over the course of the day. This activity, designed to make us all aware of the Day’s goal of illustrating “how integral writing has become to daily life in the 21st century,” triggered a number of lively conversations. Most interesting, perhaps, was the teacher who noted that though we all may write more than we might have a generation ago—is the writing any better?

Shortly thereafter, our school librarian shared information about our gallery with our Parent Teacher Student Association, and our alumni association contacts got the word out to as many graduates as possible. As it happened, one of the weeks leading up to the Day on Writing was Homecoming Week, when school spirit is high and people are already paying attention to information coming from the school. I was both pleased and amused to have the chance to write announcement copy that suggested that contributing a piece of original writing could be an expression of school spirit!

Now, a week out from the National Day on Writing, we are excited about the prospect of our small but growing gallery “going live” with all of the other local and partner galleries on October 20. We’ll use the momentum from that day to continue to invite members of our school community to contribute throughout the year.

Share the story behind your gallery by posting a comment here. Be sure to include a link so we can all check back next week to see the writing that members of your writing community decided to share with the world. If you are not currently affiliated with a local gallery, take a moment to browse the existing galleries. Chances are, you will find a place to share your writing as part of this national event.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Is My Writing Good Enough?

I've tried to decide what to write about for hours now. I've looked at every possible news story. I've read through articles from the most recent Council Chronicle. I've checked out my favorite blogs. I've searched the notes in all my journals.

I hate this kind of writer's block. I have pages of ideas, but I can't come up with something that seems important enough for NCTE's National Gallery of Writing. Nothing really feels right. Nothing feels good enough.

I know people suffer from writer's block every day. It's just that I'm an English teacher. I'm not supposed to have this problem. I know all about the writing process. I know that writing is hard work. I've tried brainstorming, rewriting and deleting—but I can't get unstuck. My writing just doesn't seem good enough.

Some little part of me expects a wonderful topic to spring forth. There must be a perfect idea out there somewhere, and I’ve searched and brainstormed for hours to find it.

Just as I was ready to give up, I remembered Gardiner Davis’s “Use the period. And other writing lessons,” a recent column from Crosscut, a Seattle news site. Davis explains that our quest for perfection is really the result of technology, more than anything else.

Now don’t jump to conclusions. It’s not that computers cause these problems. Davis points to technologies from the earliest days of writing. In the days of cuneiform, when writing required careful carving on clay tablets, there were grave consequences for error. There was no chance for correction. Only the option to start over. Davis describes the ultimate effect:

So fear enters the process. And as the element of fear gets linked with writing we create writer's block. That’s when the obsession with correctness comes in.

Davis goes on to discuss how this obsession with correctness resulted in essays covered in red ink and students and adults who hate writing.

Admittedly, I do not hate writing. I do hate being stuck. But why am I stuck? Davis’s article concludes that purpose and audience are really the key to the best writing. He says some negative things about the essays we English teachers assign, but his final point is well-taken:

When your boss asks you to write a letter, memo, or report, your first question should be, “What is the purpose of this document?” The second, “What do we want to happen because we sent this message?” And the last should be, “How much do we know about the reader?”

Without first clearly answering those questions, putting ink on paper is a total waste of everyone’s time.

Isn’t it absurd when a writing teacher forgets these things? I’ve been so busy worrying about finding the perfect topic that I forgot the most basic things about writing:

  • Forget about correctness. You can revise later.
  • Focus on what readers want (or need) to hear or know.
  • Decide what readers should do or think after reading.
  • Just start writing.

So if you’re like me and still haven’t figured out what to post in the National Gallery of Writing, it’s time. Stop looking for the perfect document. Stop trying to decide the perfect topic to ask students to write about for their submissions.

Think about what you want people who visit a gallery to see—perhaps details on how technology has affected your life, resources that show how you teach students, or even how you work as a writer. Decide what you want people who visit the gallery to conclude about how writing happens today for you and the students you teach.

And above all, don't worry about perfection. Just start writing.