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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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books-One_Otoshi-pict (1)Sometimes it just takes one

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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.

Tara Smith View All

I teach Writing Workshop, Language Arts and Social Studies to sixth graders at a middle school in suburban New Jersey. This blog is my attempt to capture all the "stuff" that goes into my teaching life - the planning, the dreaming, the reading, the preparing, the hoping and (above all) the kids.
Please note that the content of this blog is my own. It does not reflect the opinions of my employer.

17 thoughts on “Building a culture of bravery in writing workshop Leave a comment

  1. Tara, what a wonderful post. Thanks so much for the quote from Elisabeth Ellington and the video from Sara Bareilles. I will show this video to my 8th graders tomorrow, along with the lyrics and the passages from Ellington. It is so true, the best writing takes courage to say what you really think, what you really mean. If we are writing what matters, it will matter to others. We will hear each others’ voices. Thank you for all you do– for your kids, and for other teachers with these posts. Have a great year!

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  2. I so love that you were brave and launched EVERYTHING. Every day is so precious and students need to see the care and attention you pay to writing every single day. Living “brave” is so important!

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  3. I love the stories you read to honor bravery! What a fantastic list of texts to launch the year. I know it’s exhausting to be in the heat, but it sounds like things are off to a wonderful start with your sixth graders.

    Thanks for sharing Elisabeth’s beautiful words with us too.

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  4. Tara, I love this post so much. Before we even officially launched Writing Workshop, we began cultivating a climate of trust and then risk-taking and bravery. We’ve talked about why Writing Workshop calls for bravery, and even now I can see their little faces as they nodded their heads in agreement. We’ve made signs and posters about being brave. We created a class “Help Wanted” poster (I got the idea from Shana Frazin at the June Writing Institute) searching for a writing partner- sort of like this: “Wanted… A writing partner who…..” and we included things like “who will support me”, “who will be gentle with me and push me at the same time”, etc. And, we played the Sara Bareilles song “Brave”, then “close read” it to see how it applied to us and our classroom community.
    When you wrote about the quiet in the room during Reading and Writing Workshops, it helped me remember and celebrate again the hush in our room yesterday as 24 third graders hunched over their writer’s notebooks and tried so hard to storytell (versus report) and focus their narratives. My third graders are much braver than I was as a third grader, and even more than I am now.
    Thanks for this beautiful post!

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  5. Beautiful, Tara. Thank you for this post. Brave was my OLW last year, and this post helped me to know why writing (and pressing publish) has been so hard of late. Facing a new audience has brought a whole new dimension to writing for me. I know this is true – when we’re writing something that scares us we’re onto something. Now to go forward and embrace that!

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  6. I never stop loving hearing what you’ve been doing, and then sharing with all of us, Tara. It’s a wonderful thing you do for and with your students. Thanks for all, including that ‘wake-up’ video!

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  7. YES!! It’s good to know that we are ALL feeling a bit overwhelmed with regards to making certain we create a culture of REVERANCE during independent reading and writing time.

    As we shared this week’s writing, I recorded my writer’s sharing. They were SO brave and so proud as they shared their special moments.

    One particular writer who has a very tough exterior, began to read about the loss of her puppy. I asked her if I could finish reading her beautiful words. She quickly said, ” YES!” When I finished sharing her words, our community of writer’s quickly chimed in with words of praise.
    It’s a moment all of us will never forget!
    WRITING is our life line to healing ANY situation. It knows no boundaries of age or ethnicity!

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  8. I love this post! I’ve just started my creative writing class this semester and have a wide range of students. Some are excited to write and share, and some have never written a story! I am definitely going to think about these ideas this weak, especially about the idea that there has to be some fear in your writing. Thanks for a great post!

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  9. I needed to read this today. I’m having a slump in the bravery department. Losing my confidence. Questioning my resolve. Thanks for this little kick in the pants. Elisabeth’s words are so wise, and I trust them because they come from someone who lives in the trenches of the teacher/writer’s life.

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  10. A perfect start to a great year, my friend. Can’t wait to share some of it with you.
    I loved this quote If we’re writing what matters, we’re probably going to be working right there on the edge of fear much of the time…
    Bonnie

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