Category Archives: Writer’s Notebooks

Lost and Found: A Writer’s Voice

Image result for nulla dies sine lineaWriting, like anything else, is a skill: a muscle we must exercise regularly or watch soften and fade. Pliny the Elder’s advice, nulla dies sine linea–not a day without a line–hangs on the walls of many a writer’s office for good reason: daily writing is a must.

But where many writers dismay is in what they write each day. They punish themselves when their writing feels flat, lackluster, uninspired. Writer’s block creeps in. They begin to fear the empty page, to shy away from it. They stop writing, drop the pen, lose their voice.

I’m talking about a specific writer, here: me.


I recently began running again after nearly three years off. I used to love running: the empty mindlessness of it, the feeling of accomplishment the finish line brought. I ran until the third trimester of my first pregnancy, when I looked more like a bouncing beach ball than a runner.

img_6707Now, two babies, three years, many pounds, and one shoe size later, I’ve finally begun to run again. It was hard at first–I could barely run a mile without stopping. I didn’t feel the famed “runners’ high” I used to: I just felt sad. Sad that I couldn’t do what I used to be able to; sad that I’d let my running identity dissolve; sad that my days of half marathons were seemingly over.

But I bought a jogging stroller and kept at it, and forced myself to run to justify the expense. I went to the gym daily and ran circles around the track or outside on hills. I ran up and down stairs at my house; I ran after my youngest, who recently began crawling; I parked far away from stores and ran to them. Memorably, I once forgot my Starbucks on the baby shelf at Target, and ran to retrieve it.

It wasn’t always enjoyable, especially at first, but I built the skill back up, little by little. I kept at it, running on trails or in neighborhoods so I couldn’t just give up and stop. I, someone who is terrible at self-discipline, made myself a runner again.


Recently, I read Daniel Coyle’s book The Talent Code, where I learned the difference between hard and soft skills. Hard skills, like running, are quantifiable: can you run three miles? Yes, I can. Can you write in English? Yes, I can.

But soft skills are more nebulous, less quantifiable. They’re less about whether you can do something and more about how well you do it. Can I run three miles in 20 minutes? HA. Can I write a book? HA, HA.

img_4974.pngBut the key to developing soft skills, as Coyle writes, is in the practice. High reps, new variations, and clear feedback. I ran daily, even when it was terrible. But it only took a few weeks to regain my ability to run multiple miles at a time.

As I ran, I often thought about other things that once felt easy but were now hard, like my seemingly voiceless writing identity. My writing just didn’t sing anymore; it felt blah. It wasn’t fun to do. I felt I’d lost my voice.

But after reading Coyle’s book, it was clear from the gaps in my notebook that what my voice was lacking was a result of lack of practice. If I wanted to find my voice again, I would need to approach writing anew.

I wrote daily, which, like running, was painful at first. But the more I wrote, the faster my words flowed, the faster my thoughts and ideas developed. The more ideas I had, the more I craved good writing in the books I read, podcasts I listened to, music I ran to. I wanted to be surrounded by strong, elegant thinking, to help push myself to communicate strong, elegant thinking in my writing. I renewed my passion for reading good literature, regained pleasure in opening my notebook, and found my writer’s voice, and writing identity, again.


For our students, this daily, varied writing is essential. They need practice to build their voices, to sharpen their thoughts, to hone their craft. For many, their writing voices are a muscle not yet developed: they will build them in their notebooks in our classrooms.

Our students need to be saturated with good writing, strong ideas, thoughtful words. If most of their day is filled with Snapchat and Facebook and all the hideous writing social networks often entail, our students must see beauty in the books and poems and articles we share with them.

Coyle writes in The Talent Code that mentoring ourselves to experts is a key to developing our own proficiency at skills. We cannot just show our students good writing; we must bring writers to life for them; show them how a writer lives and works to illustrate the possibilities of a writing identity. We must allow them to think, “if they can do it, why can’t I?”

We must offer our students this opportunity: to be writers, with the habit of daily writing, the inspiration of strong writers, the ideas that come from reading great texts. Our routines might look like:

  • Quickwrites to begin the day as writers
  • Mentor texts to study within a larger context–as part of a genre, author, or thematic unit
  • Instant, frequent revision that goes beyond copyediting and into the addition of ideas and clarity
  • Transparency of writing process in the form of sharing one another’s drafts
  • Varied, voluminous reading independently and collaboratively
  • Quiet moments to reflect, self-assess, and set goals about our writing and writers’ identities

A writer’s voice can be so easily lost, but so readily found again with practice, purpose, and passion. We can all be writers.

Helping our students find their voices is an amazing, rewarding part of our work as teachers of readers and writers.  Keep constant the routines of daily reading and writing, and keep sacred the mantra of nulla dies sine linea–never a day without a line.

Shana Karnes lives in West Virginia with her two daughters and husband. She reads and writes daily at a large desk that overlooks a small view of the mountains. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

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Lesson Cycle: How to Teach Collaboration

When I wrote several weeks ago about how we went about building a reader/writer workshop, one of the traits we focuses on was “Collaboration.” Our Lesson focus for that day was, “I want you to know that members of this workshop community…”

We started our 55 minute class with reading, briefly visited a poet moment, and then dove into three practical rotations with texts where we explored ways collaboration can help us be better readers and writers. We used three short excerpts that we had already explored in building other parts of our workshop.

First Rotation: Talking is rehearsal for writing.

Text: You Don’t Know Me excerpt from Sherman Alexie

1st Move: Read the following excerpt and think about what the author does that you don’t do.

2nd Move: Starting with desk 1, take one lap around your group, sharing what you noticed.

3rd Move: Find a place in your notebook near this piece and write about what you shared with your group.

4th Move: Think about how hearing from others before you write serves as rehearsal for your writing. 1 or 2 students share out to the class.

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A poet moment from one of the texts

Second Rotation: Writing is a rehearsal for talking.

Text: If I Were in Charge of the World

1st Move: Read the following poem and think about something in it that surprised you.

2nd Move: Find a place in your notebook near this piece and write about what you noticed in this poem that surprised you.

3rd Move: Starting with desk #2, take one lap around your group sharing the ideas about which you wrote.

4th Move: Think about how writing about something serves as a rehearsal for you to share. 1 or 2 students share out to the class.

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A different poet moment

3rd Rotation

Text: Ready Player One excerpt

1st Move: Read the following excerpt and think about how the last line of the third paragraph makes you feel.

2nd Move: Starting with desk #3, take one lap around your group sharing how the words in the third paragraph affected your feelings in relation to the piece.  Share in the opposite direction this time.

3rd Move: As a group, construct a sentence using Earnest Cline’s sentence as a model, that mimics the complexity of the feelings.IMG_4626

4th Move: Think about how working together can take us further than we can go by working alone.

 

Quick Write:

Write about how you can use collaboration to support your growth as a reader and writer.  Write so fast that your inner critic can’t slow you down.

This lesson cycle was all about teaching the students about collaborating, a crucial skill in a workshop.  Eight weeks later, they can zip around their groups, sharing their thoughts, asking questions, blessing each other’s writing, and they do so effectively and efficiently. This may not be the best way to accomplish our goal, but it worked for us.

Please comment below if you’ve had success teaching collaboration or if you just want to chat.

Charles Moore loves working with his students in their reader’s/writer’s workshop.  His divides his time between school, home, and his son’s robotics practices which are three days a week for a total of 11 hours.  He is currently doing a terrible job keeping his grass cut and his pool pristine.  He promises to work harder.  If you’d like to see his somewhat nicely written book reviews check out his book review blog and if you want to see his numerous and random tweets, check out his twitter.

Quickwrite Mentor Texts for Writer’s Notebooks

img_6062I love going back to school for so many reasons, but one of the frontrunners is definitely that “second chance new year” feeling it provides. Teachers and students have the unique opportunity to have not just one fresh start at the beginning of a calendar year, but a second shot at goal-setting, changes, and achievements that the fall offers.

We all have our back-to-school rituals, and they are sacred: fresh notebooks, pens in all the colors of the rainbow (because we haven’t lost any yet), a well-organized classroom library that will be pilfered and picked through soon enough. One of the most important parts of establishing a workshop community is the routine that comes with setting up a writer’s notebook each fall: personalizing notebooks to make them our own, modeling a notebook’s possibilities, the establishment of quickwrite practices.

But now that the year has begun, and your notebooks are ready to go…what should you begin to fill them with? The writing in the beginning of my notebook always guides and inspires me as I continue to fill it, so I never want it to be uninspired, dull, or colorless. I crave fresh, exciting, dynamic things to fill up the first several pages of my notebook every time I start a new one, which is usually in the fall.

Here are my five favorite mentor texts that give me ideas and inspiration galore for those important start-of-the-year quickwrites–the first in a routine of creativity, agency, freedom, vulnerability, and engagement as a writer.

The Artist’s Way Workbook by Julia Cameron

This workbook is full of writing prompts for real writers: short exercises that encourage reflection, fluency, and the habit of writing vulnerably often.

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I love this workbook and its series of prompts, and use them often when I start my day with the #5amwritersclub each morning. They would be wonderful prompts for students to ease into vulnerable, personal writing in September.

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I’d Rather Be Reading by Anne Bogel

I first discovered Anne Bogel thanks to her “What Should I Read Next?” podcast, but she is also a writer and blogger, and just released a beautiful book yesterday. It’s a book about our reading lives, and provides a wonderful mentor text for writing about our reading without writing about a specific text.

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In addition to the lovely writing, I am obsessed with the illustrations: they would be wonderful to recreate in students’ notebooks with scraps of old magazines or dusty dictionaries.

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I visualize this mentor text as a wonderful one for helping students find a voice for writing about their reading lives during quarterly reflections, reading ladders, and self-assessments.

The Book of Qualities by J. Ruth Gendler

Writing about our own emotions is hard for all of us, but it’s especially hard for teens. I’ve found that writing about emotions in general, rather than our own, is a wonderful gateway for personal writing.

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In addition to being an amazing lesson in personification, this book provides gorgeous mentors for doodling, metaphors, and multigenre possibilities.

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Write the Poem

Poetry can be intimidating, but a little guidance goes a long way, and this book provides just that.

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The combination of a prompt and keywords to incorporate takes some of the guesswork out of choosing a structure, a rhyme scheme, a title, and the myriad other decisions that go into crafting poetry.

Am I There Yet? by Mari Andrew

Sometimes words are hard. They just are. Those days call for doodles, and this book is full of plenty of them–in addition to pages of plain old writing. I love this text because it tells stories beyond what we see on Mari’s Instagram and Twitter feeds, giving students a mentor text not just for writing but for the thinking and living behind it.

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Mari Andrew has long been a favorite of mine, but this book shows me how to play with writing and thinking in genres I wouldn’t have considered, and is super teen-friendly.

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I hope you’ll utilize one or more of these beautiful texts–many excerpts of which you can view on the Amazon preview pages linked above–with your students this fall. Their possibilities as entry points for writing topics and genres are powerful, and will lead to composition possibilities for the duration of your school year.

Happy writing! We’d love to know how you and your students utilize these ideas, or what others help you kick off your writer’s notebooks. Please share other quickwrite possibilities and ideas in the comments, on Twitter, or on Facebook!

Shana Karnes is a mom to two daughters, a daily reader and writer, and a forever educator. Her work with teachers in West Virginia is through the National Writing Project, West Virginia University, and the West Virginia Council of Teachers of English. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader. 

Saying Yes

Over the last several months, I’ve been learning how to say yes. I know, I know. I should be learning to say no, right? When I run a Google search for articles about just that, it returns 571,000,000 results. Pressure, amiright? But I’m not talking about the kind of yes that over-commits me and zaps my time and energy. I’m talking about the kind of yes that disrupts the status quo, altering the time space continuum of my classroom. Here’s the snapshot of HOW I’ll be saying yes. 

Day Structure Notes
Mon. Deep Dive (1) with Reading: 40 minutes free reading, 40 minutes deep reading instruction Maybe start with a thinking puzzle or something that gets their brains going for a Monday.
Tues.-

Thurs.

Typical: Individual Writing Goal Work; Notebook Time (2); Reading Instruction; Writing ML; Independent Writing (3)

Special: Watch/discuss Othello, reading assessments, etc.

This is flexible.
Fri. Deep Dive with Writing: 40 minutes of writing, 40 minutes of collaboration (4) and reflection, 10 minutes of celebration (5) Maybe start with a class meeting or something that sets the tone of reflection and looking ahead.

Specific Ways to Say Yes

(1). Independent reading is important in my classroom: student reflections indicate the time dedicated to this reading helps some of my seniors (and my AP Lang. and Comp. students!) fall into books again. Recently, though, my students have clamored for more time. While ten minutes daily can significantly impact students’ reading skills, it is difficult for students (for a variety of reasons) to get into a state of flow with their books.

The yes: So, this fall my colleague and I are saying yes to Deep Dive Reading Monday’s, where students read independently selected books while we confer with them. We believe this may help us improve reading conferences as well (where I’ll continue to practice yes by not looking for correctness but rather conveying openness. Tell me more about that, I’ll say.). Deep study of reading skills–like closing reading a text or looking for dissonance in the text–follows. We want their thinking to flow

(2). Since we teach on the block schedule, too many transitions in a block prevent students from reaching a state of flow on anything. It’s a reason why I’ve struggled to integrate notebook time meaningfully and consistently. Embarrassment and the Emotional Underlife of Learning by Tom Newkirk along with Gallagher and Kittle’s 180 Days and Linda Reif’s Quickwrite Handbook challenged us to invent a schedule that allows for both deep flow and quick bursts. In particular, Newkirk notes the importance of thresholds, moments where we can invite our students to enter into writing without worry. If we want our students to build writing and thinking skills, we need to write– sometimes quickly and without censor.  

The yes: consistently integrating notebook time into our class schedules (I’m trying this for the first time, too, in AP Lang. Maybe it will help them generate ideas for Question #3 on the AP exam.).

(3). Of course there’s extended time for writers to write and for us to confer. Of course! Typically, I feel satisfied with the nature of conferences. An early stage conference this past spring gave me pause, however. When conferring on this student’s topic, I challenged the student to demonstrate his authority and knowledge on the topic, wanting only for him to successfully grapple with it, but mostly thinking to myself NO, NO, NO. He pushed back (NO, NO, NO.). I relented and said yes. Conferring a few days later, the student confessed he was in over his head and began a more open dialogue with me about next steps.

The yes: saying try it, try it and see what happens. In this case, the student discovered for himself, testing for himself whether or not his idea would work. There’s so much more power in that.

(4) Feedback is a critical part of empowering my writers. Yet with class sizes swelling, providing that nourishment becomes a greater challenge. I need to help my students improve the quality of the feedback they provide one another.

The yes: Friday Feedback groups. I’ll place my students into writing groups where students will choose some work from the week to share, critique, and ultimately celebrate. Yes, my students will receive feedback from others and from me, yet I’m optimistic that this consistency of the grouping will lead to feedback that truly feeds writers.

(5). In my last post, I wrote about ways to celebrate writing and reflected that I needed to regularly celebrate the progress of student writers, especially in the small moments. I intend to verbal high-five my way through conferring with students this year, yet I also want them to celebrate each other. We’re a family of writers, after all.

The yes: celebration. On Friday’s we’ll have students celebrate their writing–their words, phrases, moments. We’ll recognize the power and beauty and vulnerability in what they share, appreciating their progress, hearing how it starts to come together, in concert. 

The biggest yes, though, isn’t visible in this framework. This year we’re asking our seniors to create a multi genre research project. That in itself isn’t novel, not a new way to saying yes to possibilities for our writers. What we are saying yes to is time on the calendar that is only loosely planned by us, time for us–as Allison Marchetti notes in this post–to listen to our students. This is time to help them ideate, to help them plan, to help them read, to help them write, to help them think, to help them grow. How could we say no to that?

Kristin Jeschke actually says yes a lot, too much, in fact. She’s working on that. In between, she teaches College Prep English to seniors (soon to be re-named English 4) and AP Language and Composition. Follow her on Twitter @kajeschke.  

Writer’s Notebooks and other Little Big Things

I have a collection of writer’s notebooks I’ve filled since 2009 when I attended the a National Writing Project summer institute, and my life changed. It’s been a long while since I explored the thinking I penned there. I don’t know why. There’s some real gems.

my notebooks

In the front cover of a purple notebook I starting in the fall 2013, a couple months before my mother died, I found four quotes I’d written in different colored pens.

“If I waited until I felt like writing, I’d never write at all.”

Anne Tyler

“Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.”

Louis L’Amour

“Write to the one or two people who would git it, not to “readers” or “the market.”

Avery Chenoweth

“Do not wait to strike till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking.”

William Butler Yeats

You’d think I was planning on (and hesitating) writing a book or something. Guess I still am.

The first mentor text idea I noted as an idea to use with students is “Little Things are Big.” I couldn’t remember why I liked it but had written a question to the side: Why is this event important to the author? I looked up the title, and found this fantastic personal narrative by Jesus Colon. Watch the story here.

Then, I flipped a little further and found my own Little Things are Big. It’s ragged and pretty raw, but you’ll get the idea.

“Quick as a bunny.” It was written on a scrap of paper, tucked in the antique secretary my mother got from her grandmother. We found it the last evening I ever laughed with my mother.

My father slept in intensive care with a machine keeping him breathing, and every day I’d drive my mother to the hospital, so she could stay with him throughout the day. This was harder than it sounds.

My dad had covered my mother’s illness in platitudes. She was not doing “fine.” Her dementia had advanced to the point that she was often angry and unreasonable — so unlike my mother.

Alzheimer’s is a wrecking ball, leaving chaos and confusion, not just on the person who suffers from this illness but on entire families. So many days, trying to drive to the hospital, as she tried to open the door “to get there faster.” So many days, trying to coax a meal, a bath, or even sleep. My dad was the calming balm, the light in Mother’s darkness. And I became the enemy.

Then, one evening I wasn’t. For a hopeful moment, I saw my mother happy. Without prelude she walked to that old secretary, and then walked the sore hearts of my sisters and me through a journey of loving memories. She pulled out pictures and trinkets and old church magazines — all things that represented little parts of my mother’s huge and loving life. And we laughed as she laughed deep girlish giggles.

The funny thing? This silly, rambunctious, talkative woman — she wasn’t like my mother either. No, my mother was mostly demure — a lady in every sense of the word. Sure, she’d pitch in the occasional pithy line. She’d toy with her grandchildren, even tossing one or two in jest into the backyard pool, but she was never like this brash, loud, gregarious woman who laughed with us for a few precious hours.

When Mother passed away several months later, that disease had corrupted everything. Her language. Her love for those who loved her.

And I still grieve.

But I have this tiny note tucked away in the jewelry box my mother gave me, written in my mother’s hand, and that evening sealed in memory.

She held that scrap of paper in her soft papery hand and said, “My mother used to say that to Jody and me when it was our turn to do dishes:  ‘Get them done. Quick as a bunny.’ And we did. Mostly.”

 

What little big things do you have to write about? How will you invite students to write their little big things?

Note:  I think I will be revisiting my notebooks for awhile. More to come…

Amy Rasmussen just finished refinishing the perfect desk, and now she thinks she may have solved the problem of her writer’s block. She is the daughter of incredible parents and the mother of six incredible children. She loves sharing ideas that help move readers and writers, and she’s grateful to you for reading this blog. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass 

How We Built our First 3 Weeks of Workshop

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Look at Sarah’s room!

A classroom built around flexible seating is amazing for kids building their literacy.  Comfy chairs, tall stools, and bean bags take a student out of a “classroom” mindset and into a creative work space that encourages ideas to flow across boundaries that might have been impermeable with rows and rows of sterile desks.

It works just as well for teachers building a workshop from thin air. You can imagine how comfortable that tan couch felt on the last Friday morning before the start of school.

Sitting in that room for this much anticipated planning session felt as comfortable as if I’d been there for a decade.  Five teachers with a singular focus gathered their resources and experience to put together a plan that was student focused and built on the foundation of workshop.   I got to know this group well at the Literacy Institute but I’m still trying to learn the full extent of their individual and collective power.

It is important, on our team, to be intentional and explicit with our lesson design.  The kids should know exactly what we are doing and why we are doing it.  They should recognize the moves their teachers make and take comfort that those moves were selected specifically for them. There is no reason to keep the “why” and the “how” a secret.

On this team, we typically build lessons with an eye towards a learning focus that starts with something like: I want you to know that readers/writers ….. do something. (Thanks Amy, Billy, and the Lit Institute.)

For the first three weeks, though, we talked about using: I want you to know that members of a Reader/Writer Workshop….do…one of the six pillars.  You get it.

Our curriculum documents, designed by teachers, contain a section devoted to the six routines of workshop instruction and the following are the routines around which we built lessons:

The Reader’s/Writer’s Notebook

Lesson Focus: I want you to know that members of this Reader’s/Writer’s workshop use a notebook to explore thier literacy.

Our “notebooks” look very different teacher-to-teacher.  Some of our classes will use traditional composition notebooks and some will use Microsoft OneNote in our explorations.  Either way, the point of having a safe and personal place to plan, draft, revise, reflect, etc. remains consistent across our classes.  Its not enough for us to ask the kids to have a notebook, they need to know the importance of having it.  Some of the kids struggled with following my set-up instructions because they were intentionally vague.

Student: “Mr. Moore, what categories do you want us to use to track our reading this year?”

Me: “That’s up to you.  Its your notebook.”

Self-Selected Independent Reading:

Lesson Focus: I want you to know that members of this Reader’s/Writer’s workshop take ownership of their reading and writing experiences.

I remember back to last year, and how much the kids struggled genuinely connecting to a book. Maybe it was the hurricane sitting out in the Gulf or that they really only had one year of workshop leading up to their senior year.  What ever it was, we worked hard to take ownership of our reading, so much so that I wrote about it here and here. (Looking back at those words is like seeing the words of a different writer, but I digress…)

Mentor Texts:

Lesson Focus: I want you to know that members of this Reader’s/Writer’s workshop use mentor texts to guide their learning.

We use mentor texts to teach kids how to read and write like a writer. The students need to know that we looking at the writing of others with specific intentions in mind. Its important to delineate the separate lenses of craft and content and constantly reinforce the importance and interconnection of both.

We planned for ways to write beside them.  When I write in front of my students it invites them to connect to a writer from their community.  This connection is between a student and a person that shakes their hand every day and smiles when they make eye contact. That’s an incredibly deep connection and one that I’ll leverage every chance I get.

Mini-Lessons:

Lesson Focus: I want you to know that members of this Reader’s/Writer’s workshop look at specific skills that we want to learn and then apply those skills to their reading and writing.

The skills we choose to highlight are intentional and our students need to understand that they aren’t chosen at random.  Not only that, but we aren’t going to spend more than a few minutes in our mini-lessons before we move back into reading and writing, with an emphasis on those specific skills.

Collaboration:

Lesson Focus: I want you to know that members of this Reader’s/Writer’s workshop listen to others share and provide feedback that supports their growth.

I can’t teach all 30 of them all the time and maintain any level of effectiveness.  We have to build a supportive community that  allows me to widen the feedback cycle from one, typically confident student, to 30 who are confident to share with their confidants. They need to know that the days of me asking a question and calling on one person for the answer are far behind us.  We practice the routine over and over. Ask a question, discuss in group.  Ask a question, practice their thinking through written response. Rinse/Repeat.

Oh, and they have to be trained not to shoot up their hands or shout out an answer when they are asked to notice something.  Instead, they will learn to sit in the silence and let their thinking wash over them in waves. Or maybe the metaphor is to peel back the layers of their thinking like an onion. Whichever you prefer.

Conferring:

Lesson Focus: I want you to know that members of this Reader’s/Writer’s workshop take advantage of opportunities to talk one-on-one with the expert in the room.

The importance of regular one-on-one conferences can not be understated. I’m not just “checking-in” on them while they read and write.  I’m digging into their thinking for places I can provide support.  We will explain to our students how important it is for them to be honest and open when we confer.  They can’t hold back due to nervousness or fear. Like Jerry Maquire said, “Help me, help you!!!” with that typically creepy look on his face.

 

Based on our planning sessions, impromptu secret meetings, and the genuine happiness in which we approach each other, I know this year will be my best ever and it is because of the work this team will do together to move our freshman class forward in their literacy.

Now, in all seriousness, lets cross our fingers and hope nature and fate don’t hit us with the same intensity as last year.  We all need time to heal a little more.  Let’s do it together.

Charles Moore had a quiet Friday night and went to all four of his son’s soccer games this weekend.  He passed El Deafo by Cece Miller back and forth with his daughter this weekend.  He put more than two thousand words to the page this weekend between his grad classes and this blog post; a new record.  He can’t wait to get back into the classroom Monday morning and learn alongside the students.  And he wishes you the same happiness he’s enjoying right now. Visit him on twitter or instagram.

 

 

Guest Post: The Authentic Writing Process

Writing is one of the biggest struggles among the students who visit my classroom each year, much like many classrooms across America. The traditional, sterile way students are taught to write stifles the authenticity of what writing is naturally. The writing process is often the most confusing because the students are told they can only write one way through a certain formulaic expectation. Instead of teaching a formula and using a one-size-fits-all graphic organizer, we need to teach students how to write authentically; teach them the process of writing, not the product. By teaching a student how to master the process of writing we teach them how to overcome the struggle that so many of our students experience.

This summer I excitedly attended the Summer Institute with some of my fellow Clear Creek ISD English teachers and was able to really absorb and practice the writing process through Reader Writer Workshop.

The writing process began when the class was tasked with mimicking a mentor text. Students need to see the moves that writers are making in their own pieces and use what they have seen and learned to inspire their own writing craft. Using mentor texts is a great way to help students improve their writing through reading. We read a few texts, responded with writing about those texts and then briefly discussed in our groups what we had written, then moved on to our writing task. We were given about 8 minutes and told to respond in writing to a piece we felt a connection with, to not worry about the way we began, but just to write. I chose to write alongside The Poem Mami Will Never Read from The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo. Something about the way she wrote the poem for someone who, for one reason or another, would never read it, really spoke to me. For the last two years I have been dealing with grief over the death of one of my best friends, so I decided to write a poem to him that he would never read.

I began by mimicking the line from the poem, “You will never read this poem that…” and took it from there. I poured my heart onto this page in my notebook revealing all the pent-up emotions I have been pushing to the back of my mind and ignoring in my heart for two years. Quite possibly, it could just be that it took this long for my heart and mind to process the shock and grief that came with his death. I wrote about a page and a half before the class moved on and I was able to come up for air and let the poem be. Having permission through the process to just write without a formula is what gave my piece the ability to become something great.

The next class day we were given time to draft more on our piece. I began by reading back through what I had written and began adding to it. At the end of the writing period we were encouraged to share with a peer at our table what we had written so far. Fear surged through me, I could feel my heart begin to beat so quickly I was sure everyone at my table cold hear it or see my shirt move up and down with each beat. I reminded myself that as a teacher, I will ask my students to do this. How can I ask my students to share their vulnerable hearts with me, if I do not do the same. At the beginning of Summer Institute, I vowed to dive in 100% with the Workshop process and way of teaching, so I shared my piece with a partner at my table. I immediately felt fear but also a feeling I didn’t expect; liberation. Handing him my notebook, with my heart on the page, was like handing the emotions over and validating that they are real; my first step to find healing within myself, and my first big leap in the writing process.

I remember feeling anxiety begin to pour into every crevice in my body as I watched him read every word on the page and begin to make notes about my writing, my feelings, my emotions. I remember being scared as he handed back my notebook with a look I could not discern on his face. As I read through the notes I began to feel empowered, my writing was validated by my partner and friend as a touching and creative. He pushed me to write more specifically and pour more of myself into this piece. Sharing became a significant and empowering tool in my writing process. By seeing what others thought and how readers read my writing, I was able to revise and edit my piece in a way that ensures my readers hear what I am wanting them to hear and learn what I want them to learn.

I intentionally took a day away from my piece after sharing and revising for a bit. I think this is one of the most important things I did in the process. It allowed me to step back and process my feelings and thoughts and let the piece breath for a bit before I dove back in. I felt refreshed and was able to refocus when I came back to the piece. I worked on this piece for another three or four days before sharing again to learn more about what was lacking in my piece for my reader and continuing in the process of writing.

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During my revision of my third draft, I heard the terrifying words, “Let’s all share with our groups our best lines.” I had to remind myself that I committed to fully experience this process; what I ask my students to do each day in my classroom. I shared. I cried. I kept writing. My face flushed with heat and my voice shook as the words were spoken aloud for the first time, in front of other people. It felt as if the world stopped and all eyes were peeking into my soul. I hated it. But loved it at the same time. I loved it because I saw the process working. I didn’t stop writing, in fact, I wrote six more pages. Six. More. Pages. Imagine if we model with our students with as much vulnerability and dedication as we ask them to share. Imagine if we give ourselves over to this process, as scary as it might be for some. Change is never easy but almost always, in my experience, worth it.

On the last day I was to present my piece. When it was my turn in the circle I pulled on my memory of the last three weeks and the process I took to get to get this “final” piece. I channeled the empowerment I felt through sharing and after about 60 seconds of steady tears and intentional calm breathing, I read my whole piece aloud for the first time.

I sobbed as I read, remembering how death stole from me. I shook at the overwhelming feeling of grief’s grasp on my heart. I breathed through the memories of never getting to say goodbye to someone I loved so dearly for more than 16 years. Each exhale taking with it another line from the poem, another piece of my shattered heart. I painted a picture with words of my precious best friend’s soul, smile and life that I never thought I would be able to. At the end, when I was done, the room was silent for a many long seconds and I remember feeling the weight and shackles of grief release in the slightest bit. A start to more healing; therapy through writing.

My experience this summer was messy, beautiful, difficult, liberating, scary, healing and most of all empowering. Reader Writer Workshop allowed me to experience the writing process in a way that renewed my love of writing and freed my creative mind previously bound by the limits of traditional, templated writing curriculum. The whole writing process gave me so much confidence in myself and my writing and I can’t wait to instill this same confidence in my students next year.

A few things I took away from my time as a Workshop student about the writing process:

  1. The writing process needs to be authentic and organic. It is different for each writer.

  2. Being a reader is so important. Reading as a writer is what helps the writer find their voice and authentic process of their own writing.

  3. The writing process is not a one size fits all formula. It is far from that, so throw away your essay outline template and let your students follow your lead on becoming a true writer. The writing process is something that happens naturally, authentically, differently, for each writer.

  4. Authentic writing is not a formula. I have found that I don’t really “brainstorm” or “pre-write” or make webs and charts… I just write. Whatever it is I feel, whatever it is I want to say – or sometimes what I don’t want to say.

  5. My first draft is often messy and there is so much beauty in that mess. It is often unorganized, drowning in imperfect sentences and awful cheesy metaphors, and that is okay. Our students need to know this as well, that as writers, we are never going to get it on the first try. That is why this is called the Writing PROCESS. There are many steps to writing an essay, a story, anything at all, and if we are to do it well we need to be 100% committed to the Workshop Process.

  6. Sharing is necessary. This was the most difficult part for me and my writing piece this summer. Letting others read my scorched and broken heart on a page was not something I was immediately ready to let happen, but without it, I would not have gone through the writing process and created my piece with the depth I did. The piece I wrote is raw and full of anguish. It was, and still is, terrifying to share but more therapeutic than I could have imagined. Hearing what my friends and peers had to say was encouraging and gave me confidence that what I was writing and what I was writing about was important to more than just my healing, but others’ as well. Knowing this is what made the tear stained pages a little easier to share.

  7. Revision is a balance. Knowing when to resurface before diving back into the emotions and write more, write with deeper purpose and meaning is essential to a successful writing process.

  8. Writing is never really done. I read my “final” piece aloud in our read around on the last day of this class and I still find myself wanting, needing to dive back in a make it more than it was.

Although a piece may never feel “finished”, knowing when to leave well enough alone is important.

  1. The writing process gave me power and bravery to keep writing. I feel like more of my heart is ready to pour out into this one piece, but maybe that means there is another piece lying within me. This is the beauty of this process, seeing clearly what the purpose is of each piece and moving on to another when you need to.

  2. Our students need to experience this each and every day in our classrooms.

This next year I will continue my growth as a writer alongside my students in the Reader Writer Workshop classroom by modeling what true writers do. I will be sharing my experience with the writing process and encouraging my students daily to find their voice through this beautiful, necessary process. Yes, it is less conventional, but so are our students. I hope to free them from the traditional approach to writing and watch them create and find empowerment in their creations. It is up to us, their teachers, to model and write alongside them vulnerably and intentionally, showing them what real writers and readers do. They deserve the chance to learn in a way that will empower them for the rest of their life. Imagine the writing we can experience from our students if we let them find their writing process.

Sarah Roy is a mother to three amazing, energetic, creative little boys and wife to a Marine turned Texas State Trooper who is braver and more selfless than anyone she has ever known. She is a Disney addict and is excited to surprise her sweet boys with a trip to Disney World in 10 days. Her passion for reading and writing overflows into her students each year and she loves watching them grow on their journey to be readers and writers.

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