GUEST BLOG POST: Self-Advocacy Begins with Reflection

Angela Stockman is the founder of the WNY Young Writers’ Studio, a community where teachers and young people come together to discover what good writing is, how to create it, and how to inspire others to do the same. Studio is a place where all teachers write and all young writers teach. Middle and high school students who express an interest in becoming certified teachers of writing are invited to mentor within our program and participate in many of the same professional learning experiences that teachers do. It is the hope that these pre-service teachers will emerge from Studio better prepared to serve and inspire future writers and learners. You can visit Angela on the WNY Young Writers’ Studio blog or at WNY Education Associates, where she reflects on her work as consultant and literacy coach inside of Western New York schools.

Awhile back, I had a hunch that if I created a welcoming place for kids and teachers to write and learn together outside of the school system, people would come. Acting on that hunch required a bit of risk, and since I’ve never been much of a risk-taker, I can’t help but wonder who may have had control of the wheel when I rolled into the WNY Young Writers’ Studio for the very first time four years ago this week. What an incredible ride it has turned out to be so far.
Studio is a learning community comprised of kids and teachers. Our youngest writers are just six years old. Last year, we saw our first graduate off to college, and another one will follow in her footsteps this year. No one warned me about the leaving by the way, and I can’t say I’m adjusting well. The truth is I didn’t know if anyone would return to Studio after our first year together. I’m so glad that they did and that many of them brought company with them. I don’t know how I’d learn much of anything about teaching or writing without these people to push me.
I spend the majority of my days inside of school districts in Western New York. I provide a lot of support to literacy teachers at every grade level. We design curricula and implement it together. We study promising practices and the influence that they seem to have on students. We read a lot of books and drink a lot of caffeine and lean on each other as the waves of change wash over all of us in our varied roles. Don’t get me wrong–I’m incredibly grateful for the work I get to do as a consultant and coach, but the best learning that I do happens at Studio.
Case in point: a few years ago, a number of happy accidents occurred right on top of each other within our little community. Kids from our program had begun taking some of our protocols and strategies back to their schools. They were inviting their teachers to talk with them about their writing in the same way that we do at Studio. They were asking for criteria-specific feedback, time for collaborative discourse, and opportunities to make their own choices as learners. In short, they were advocating for themselves, and many of their teachers were responsive. As someone who spends most of her days attempting to inspire these sorts of changes in teacher practice, I sat up and took careful notice of what was going on. Then, I started wondering how we could make these sorts of accidents happen more often. This is when we started pursuing reflective practice and self-advocacy with far greater intention at the WNY Young Writers’ Studio.
As I write this, fellow teachers Sheri Barsottelli, Betsy Ernst, and I are wrapping up the first week of our summer session, which serves as the kick off to our new year. Some of what we’ve done has been influenced by Stacey and Ruth’s phenomenal book, Day by Day: Refining Writing Workshop Through 180 Days of Reflective Practice. We were also moved by Katherine and Randy Bomer’s book, For a Better World: Reading and Writing for Social Action. Each text speaks to the power of reflective notebooks within the writing experience. We’ve placed them in a pivotal position at Studio this year, and I’m finding the thinking and the work that is emerging from them compelling.
Helping writers of all ages assess and name their own needs has become one of our greatest intentions. Coaching them to advocate for themselves within and beyond our community is another. We’ve studied the influence that reflective journals seem to have on these processes throughout this week, and we’ll continue to do so for the remainder of this year. I have to admit—when this action research project began taking shape a while back, I was daunted by the idea of engaging kids in this work. It seems kind of heady, I know.
But seriously? I wish you were sitting next to me at my kitchen table right now. I’m buried in notebooks filled with fresh ink and brilliant questions.
How did that happen?
Well, we kicked things off on Monday by exploring the essential question: how do we produce great writing that makes a difference for others? Writers were asked to form their own responses, share them with others, and reflect on them within their notebooks. Then, we began learning together. Throughout the week, we moved through lessons on writer’s craft and process. We dove into the Dispositions of Practice, articulated by my friends at Communities for Learning: Leading Lasting Change, and we began drafting, of course. We always returned to reflection though, and reflection became the vehicle by which the writers in our program were able to independently define and then refine their needs.

At the close of our session on Monday, writers were asked to write about the ways in which their thinking changed relevant to our essential question. On Tuesday, they considered prompts like these, which were influenced by the work of Christopher Johns. By Wednesday, writers were encountering a variety of breakthroughs and dilemmas, and the problem-solving protocol captured in the photo below proved helpful to many. Writers captured their thinking and the shifts that they were making throughout each of these experiences in their notebooks. This prepared them well for today’s activities. This morning, our elementary writers began articulating their own needs. This afternoon, middle and high school writers prepared themselves to do the same.

Writing communities are distinguished by shared vision and leadership. In order for our community to thrive, our work together must be about far more than words. Each fellow must become increasingly self-aware. Understanding our needs helps us ask others for support. Knowing our strengths enables each of us to give back. My favorite moments of this first week together happened today, as writers approached me for their first conferences of the year. They came prepared with questions. The sentence frames and starters on the poster below enabled them to speak to their needs. As we sat together, they looked over a week’s worth of reflective entries and flagged the posts that revealed something important about who they were, what they thought, or how they were growing as a writer. For the first time in the history of my teaching career, the content of these initial conferences was enriched with evidence and loamy with detail. It typically takes far longer to arrive at this place.

If this is where reflective notebooks have taken us in one short week, I can’t wait to see what the rest of the year will deliver. Thanks for sharing your expertise with all of us at the WNY Young Writers’ Studio Stacey and Ruth. We learn so much from you.