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Writing Well is What Changes the World

Recently, I read Penny Kittle’s article “What We Learn When We Free Writers,” and I learned as much about myself as a writer as I did about my students. I needed to rethink some things.

See, I am trying to write a book. Most days I’m lying when I say so. I haven’t written well enough or consistently enough or passionately enough to say so.

But I am trying to.

I started reading Writing Down the Bones–Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg, and I’m marking lines that resonate. So far, this is my favorite:

Write when you write (26).

I wrote it out and stuck it to my computer monitor, and during my lunch 20140407_114704break I open up my document in Drive and throw my thinking on the page. This is hard–I am so easily distracted. And the perfectionist in me nags until I go back and make revisions. I’m trying to quiet that voice.

The #100words100days challenge is helping. This started as a simple idea during #engchat a few weeks ago. I’m not consistent in posting my word count or links to what I’ve written, but I am writing. That’s what matters.

Back to the article:  Penny refers to the advice of Don Murray regarding authentic writing instruction. It includes just three things:

  1. Teach process, not product.
  2. Write yourself.
  3. Listen to your students.

I do all of these things. But sometimes, I do not do them well.

A few students and I had a big disconnect last week. They pushed back at what I was trying to get them to do. They didn’t understand. A lot.

I had failed at a few things:

A. I failed at making sure students knew that I do every writing assignment I ask them to do.

B. I failed at sharing (in a way that they understood) the enduring understandings and essential questions that directed my planning.

C. I failed at helping students see how process writing will help them with the timed writings that they will have to do on the AP exam, and it will help them with the writing they will have to do in college and beyond. (I still don’t get how they missed that.)

I assumed way too much. I guess I forgot these students are 16, and English class would be low on their list of priorities, if they kept a list.

So this morning, we slowed down. We thought about our writing and our writing habits. We wrote self-reflections, we evaluated our writing processes, and we talked.

First, I projected the stages of the continuum that Penny shared. Like her, I can see my students’ writing practices somewhere between “I won’t write” and “I freely write.”

Interestingly, when students placed their own writing practices on the continuum, with the exception of just two outliers, they all said they sat in “Stage three:  I will write, but I’m not deeply engaged with my own thinking. I want you to tell me what to write, so I can do it the way you say so and move on.”

This makes me sad, but I think I get it.

I am trying to break the writing habits students have practiced for years. Years of teachers giving prompts and writing assignments that students did not choose. Years of students writing only what they had to for a grade. No play in notebooks. No writing just for the pleasure of writing. No writing without penalty for poor grammar or mechanics.

Now we are in the fourth quarter, and I have roughly two months to turn the tide. Two months to help students get what I so desperately want them to get:  Writing well is what changes the world.

It is, you know. Just think about it.

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5 thoughts on “Writing Well is What Changes the World

  1. Nancy Peterson April 9, 2014 at 9:16 am Reply

    As a teacher of elementary language arts methods, I read every word you write, and this post really resonated with me. I’m trying so hard to pass on to my elementary teacher wannabes that writing is the one area in which they can be authentic if they will. If they will “live” those three Don Murray truths, and stop with the cutsie prompts, and honor their students for who they are… and believe that “writing well is what changes the world.” I see the light bulb go on, and I read their notebook entries, and I think I’m making a difference… and then they go out into their field experience, into elementary classrooms, where 1 or 2 out of 30 cooperating teachers show any resemblence to authentic experiences. And instead of that, my students come back saying, “My cooperating teacher said she already did her writing unit in September,” or “my cooperating teacher said these kindergarteners can’t write,” or (most often): “My cooperating teacher told me to use her worksheet, and give them the prompt that she always uses for St. Patrick’s Day.” It is no wonder that kindergarteners and 3rd graders and 5th graders grow up to be in those lower stages, or maybe stage 3 (that you spoke of). When they come back to my class after their 3-week field hiatus, and read or listen to their reflections, I have to find the light-bulb switches all over again. I loved reading about your attempts to help your students change the world, and I will not lose heart myself, at least, not until next semester’s field experience!

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    • amyrasmussen April 9, 2014 at 11:32 am Reply

      Nancy, that you for your thoughtful comment. I pray you are successful in your attempts to help our future teachers be authentic writers who teach authentic writing. I think we have to keep repeating ourselves, especially when we get the chance to work with cooperating teachers who are stuck doing things that do not lend themselves to helping students find joy, passion, hope, and fulfillment in their writing. It takes a lot of time to be so real.

      You, my friend, have the chance to truly change the world of writing instruction. Keep at it! So many young writers will appreciate it.

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  2. Krista N. April 8, 2014 at 11:18 pm Reply

    I admire that you manage to write each assignment with the students. Many times, I felt myself aching to write in response to an assignment I had created, but seldom felt the freedom to take the time to do it. Thanks for this post; it has stirred up great reflection within me about the way in which I approach my own writing.

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    • amyrasmussen April 9, 2014 at 11:25 am Reply

      Krista, remember that I didn’t say that I write every assignment well. Ha. I think it was from Kelly Gallagher that I first learned the importance of letting students see my own struggle as a writer. That is the number one reason I do it. The other is because I occasionally hear so much whining: “We’re too busy…blah blah.” I need students to know that we can always find the time for things that we feel are important. Writing is important. Thank you for the comment and best blessings to you.

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  3. asmaa khalaf April 8, 2014 at 8:14 am Reply

    i apply certain approach with my student in college for instance i give general little in essay like ”experience in your childhood”. they can select the topic that they can excel in i gain beautiful result. making the student write something that interest them is the miracle that many teachers ignore.

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