Happy New Year! Using Celebration to Restore and Build our Identities as Writers
Lindsay Reyes began her teaching career seven years ago in South Carolina where she taught 4th and 5th graders. Following her heart for urban education and literacy reform, she moved to New York City where she taught middle school in the South Bronx. She has experience teaching General Ed and Special Ed (as a Collaborative Team Teacher in an inclusive setting). This year, she’s teaching 5th grade at P.S. 59 in Manhattan. This summer she began a blog, Chasing Beauty… in the Classroom, to help celebrate and reflect on teaching.
New beginnings are potent. They are filled with big and tiny moments where the foundation of our year is formed. Like the early stages of life, they must be under fierce protection and nurturing so that new life can thrive. For teachers, it’s the new life of our community and a writing life for our students. On the first day of school, 30 lives walk through our door carrying the stories of before. Stories to be honored and valued. Stories waiting to be told. Yet our story together is only beginning.
In the early days of school, I have two major goals: I want to protect the self-confidence students already have and I want to nurture the hearts who are desperately looking for a new start. I want students to take risks, both personal and academic, throughout the year, so my aim is to create an environment in which they feel safe to do so. In this post, I want to share a tradition that has proved powerful in building a safe community while helping students take back (or secure) their identities as writers.
INSPIRE and RALLY
I launch the writing experience each year by reading aloud Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson.
Embedded in this gorgeous book are themes essential to the teaching of writing. Throughout a family’s journey from slavery to freedom, the reader witnesses writing’s power to change and even save lives. My favorite thing (especially for the resistant or struggling writer) is that Jacqueline Woodson shows that writing can be told aloud as well as through pictures.
From this shared experience, we talk about the power of writing. Specifically WHY, WHEN, and WHAT we write. We chart our answers and rally together to revive our longings to share our stories.
Possible language could sound like this:
So be thinking, (like in Show Way)
- Is there something you’ve seen in the world that you think is unfair?
- Do you have a story or moment that comes back to your mind again and again that you just need to write down?
- Are you bothered by something or so proud of something you just want to shout it to the world? Etc.
Each chart looks differently depending on your students’ answers, but it can end up looking something like this:
Depending on the group, I do one brainstorm or all three.
By this point, students are chomping at the bit to get something on paper. After sharing their idea with a partner, I send them off, telling them to have fun and write whatever is on the tip of their tongue or deep in their hearts. (I usually have strategies ready for students who get stuck or are overwhelmed with the broad choice. But remember, students can start with pictures or oral story-telling to a partner if that helps!) As they write, I circle the room and highlight their work, making a production of every thoughtful or relentless act I see. At the end of our share, I take up notebooks and prepare for an intense night of assessment.
RESPOND AND LOVE UP
The most crucial step comes next: Looking at each student’s writing. Of all the nights of the year to get through every writer’s notebook, this is the night. It’s crucial that I read, respond, and LOVE UP each student’s notebook with detailed feedback.
This time, my feedback is only positive. Specific and thoughtful, but POSITIVE ONLY. As much as I want to, I don’t teach into anything yet. However I do make my own notes for later. What I want to do here is look for what IS. What is in the writing that makes me laugh, smile, cry, admire something or someone, etc. It could be in the content, conventions, structure, or even the title. Sometimes it takes searching, but you will find it! (Hidden Gems by Katherine Bomer has been my cornerstone for looking at student work like this.) Once my eyes are opened to what they’ve done, I try to name it in a clear and simple way and celebrate it in my comment. The student has now become a class mentor for this particular move or strategy.
LAVISH AND LAUNCH
The very next day, we celebrate! It is ambush of sorts. Usually I pull the students together in a large circle and begin to lavish compliments. I start with the large stack notebooks and go through them one-by-one, naming the gorgeous work they’ve done (in a voice that oozes genuine awe). The anticipation is tangible. As this goes on, we chart all the strategies we’ve found and write the name of the student next to it. Now, he or she is a public mentor for all of us. From now on we can say, “Remember how Matty did ____________? Do you think you’re ready to try that, too?” This reveals that we have something to learn from everybody.
This is something I think most of us do on a small scale each day, but I am starting to think I need more of these moments of disproportionate celebration. Moments where students are given no other option but to feel extraordinary. Moments where old identities of failure, inadequacy, and fear are washed away and replaced with excitement, confidence, and belief. I’ve seen so many students reclaim identities as writers (and dearly loved people) through this activity and others like it. I am still wrapping my head around the power of celebration.
Ultimately, my hope is for the hearts of my students to ask, “What is this place I’ve come to where I cannot fail?” When we feel this secure, we will try anything and are eager to learn.