Building a culture of bravery in writing workshop

Friday marked the end of our first week of school.  We launched everything this week, including writing workshop.  As I wearily cleaned up and straightened out our classroom on Friday afternoon,  I stopped for a moment to sit in the rocking chair which looks out over our meeting area.  In the quiet of a Friday afternoon, I could still see the faces of my new students as they listened to our read alouds, wrote, and shared their writing.  Sharing writing, at the very beginning of the school year, takes such bravery.

I was thinking of my kids, again, when I read Elisabeth Ellington’s beautifully wise post on her beautifully wise blog, the dirigible plum.  Elisabeth is a professor of education and English, and a talented writer; I turn to her blog often for ideas about what to read, how to write, and how to teach. Here is what she wrote yesterday:

If we’re writing what matters, we’re probably going to be working right there on the edge of fear much of the time. I feel like a Jillian Michaels video here, but we have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Writing that feels safe is often writing that’s just going through the motions. When I’m uncomfortable in a piece of writing, that’s when I know I’m getting somewhere.

There are different ways to be uncomfortable in our writing. Maybe we’re exploring subject matter that makes us feel vulnerable. Maybe we’re on the edge of what we can manage stylistically or technically. Or we’re trying something new—a new genre, a new format. Maybe we’re pushing our thinking and uncovering new beliefs. Or we’re challenging ourselves to articulate in words what we’ve never before spoken.

Discomfort is necessary if we’re going to grow and develop as writers, and here’s why: the discomfort is really about fear of failure. We aren’t sure that we can pull off what we’re trying to do. But if we aren’t risking failure, we aren’t learning. I can’t get better by doing the thing I already know how to do. At least not if that’s the only thing I do. And so when I’m uncomfortable, I know I’m growing, learning, discovering, developing.

That’s a tall order for any writer, whether a college professor, college student…or a sixth grader.  But, I know, that is indeed what I ask of my kids, every day, in our writing workshop.   It takes bravery to write, and bravery to share; so, much of our time in reading/writing workshop in these first few weeks are spent trying to build a culture of bravery in our writing workshop.  Here are our building blocks:

I write and I share:

My writer’s notebook and reading journal sit on my desk, and when we turn to write after a read aloud or mini lesson, I write. All week, I’ve kept track of my kids watching me write.  I know that when I look up from my notebook to collect my thoughts, there are eyes taking note of the way writers pause to think, imagine, clarify.  When I pause to look up a word, or refer to the readaloud text to collect a quote, they are paying attention.  These  writing behaviors are every bit as important as the mini lessons I share about writing moves and craft choices.  Brave writers don’t always know where they are going, or whether their writing is hitting the mark…but they keep trying at the craft.  I want my kids to know this.

We cultivate a reverence for our writing time:

Our class is a noisy space – a place of discussion, sharing, and debate… unless we are reading or writing.  Especially writing. There is a hush in the room when we open our notebooks and begin to dig for stories, a sense that important work is afoot and this work requires respect.  Bravery begins in a place where one is respected, and brave writers need to feel this respect in their bones.

We read books that nudge us into the many ways to find and honor bravery:

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We celebrate each time someone is brave and shares a bit from their writing pages.  Not with loud clapping and woo-hoo’s, but gentle nods to say: “Thank you for being brave. Because you shared, now I feel that I can, too.”

As Elisabeth so wisely says, to learn is to take risks and become comfortable with being uncomfortable.  And so, in these early days of writing workshop, we work on being brave.