Teach the Writer

I wish we could change the world by creating powerful writers forever instead of indifferent writers for school.

—Mem Fox

I just want to take a deep breath and read those words again. Exactly. “Powerful writers forever instead of indifferent writers for school.” Sigh. This is why I’m thankful for writing workshop. It helps us shift our attention from writing to writers. As long as our focus is on writing pieces — a personal narrative piece or a poetry piece or a nonfiction piece that’s all we’re ever going to have…pieces. And no matter how hard we try, all these pieces will never really make a whole.

Yet if we shift to focusing on the writers in our classrooms and teach to their needs (instead of to the needs of a piece of writing), we will create powerful writers (who in turn can write well pieces of nonfiction and narrative and poetry). By building confidence, instilling knowledge, and giving genuine opportunities to change the world through words students learn first hand the power of writing.

The thing is there’s so much pressure to produce a product. We want kids writing complete sentences. We want them writing with focus. We want them using commas and capitals and colons. We want their nonfiction writing to teach with interest and compelling facts (but not to copy). We want their poetry to dance innovative images across the page. We want their personal narratives to be riddled with meaning and voice. Of course we could replace “we want” with “the school wants” or “the state wants” or “parents want.” It doesn’t really matter, though, because our attention is focused on the wrong thing. We’re thinking about the writing instead of the writers.

For years research has indicated the best way to teach kids to write is to give them time, resources, and more time to write. It isn’t about telling them how to write a thesis statement or a topic sentence or where to put a comma. It’s about giving them time to muck around in the writing world. It’s about helping them develop the stamina to write across minutes and hours. It’s about helping them find meaningful topics and important issues that they care about…things that matter to them.

This is the place to begin — by listening to the writers (no matter what their age) in our classrooms. It’s about watching what they are doing naturally and then helping them to grow into more proficient writers. It’s not about what we wish they were doing, but about what they are doing. Sometimes we look so longingly on the things they aren’t doing that we miss all the things they are doing well (or almost well).

I’m determined to change the world by teaching to the individual writers in classrooms. I’m dedicating myself to listening to them and learning from them. I’m excited to nudge them to new understandings and helping them have a greater command of writing well. I’m believing that these things will change the world because they will help to create “powerful writers forever.”