When was the first time you felt like a writer?
My earliest memory of being a writer was creating stories that my Grandma used to tell. She invented characters: “Good Gertie,” “Bad Betsy,” and “Sweet Sally” (Gertie’s sister). My Grandma would make up stories of how Betsy would do all naughty things while Gertie always listened and behaved perfectly. My older sister, Christine, began writing and drawing her own tales of Gertie, Betsy, and Sally. Never one to be left out, I began writing stories, too. I would make up adventures for Good Gertie and Bad Betsy, illustrating as I wrote. I can still remember one scene where Gertie was crying because Betsy knocked down her blocks. From a young age, I was surrounded by rich oral storytelling, provided with a mentor (my sister), given materials and encouraged to write.
So what? Why think about an early memory of feeling like a writer? In what ways do my early memories of feeling like a writer influence how I feel about writing today? How do these memories shape the writing workshop I create for my students?
These were some of the questions I (along with my Long Island Writing Project colleagues) posed during professional development workshops for educators this summer. As a classroom teacher, I spend most of my time working with 3rd graders. However, as a teacher-consultant for the Long Island Writing Project, I sometimes get the opportunity to lead workshops and professional development experiences for other educators. I am honored to do this type of work and I take it very seriously because as a teacher myself, I know our time is valuable. Professional development should honor teachers’ expertise and interests, be inspiring, and be practical. (I previously blogged about Classroom Teachers’ Rights and Responsibilities when it comes to PD).
In designing professional development for teachers of writing, my colleagues and I wanted to be interactive, make the work personal and engaging for the teachers, and push our participants to think about how their early experiences as a writer shapes their teaching today. Angela Stockman, author of Make Writing and founder of WNY Young Writer’s Studio, shared an idea in her WNY Young Writer’s Studio Facebook group that really seemed to fit what we were hoping to accomplish. She described a “gamestorming” idea involving post-its, quick writes, conversation about the memory being school or home related, all leading up to each participant drafting a Writer’s Statement. We adapted the idea for our workshops. While we did this work with educators, this can also be done with students who have memories of earlier writing experiences.
Here is the procedure:
- Prior to the activity starting, the materials needed include different color post-its, large lined post-its in the same color (we used blue), large construction paper divided into sections that say “home” and “school” (1 for each group), and markers. Participants should have post-its and markers/pens ready at the start of this activity.
- The presenter will explain that this a “gamestorming” activity, which is like brainstorming but fast (like a game). Before the sentence starter is read, the presenter will ask participants to put a 1 on the post-it. The first sentence starter is: “I felt like a writer for the first time when…” Participants should write the first thought that comes into their heads, and only write about a sentence of two. This post-it is put aside for the second sentence starter, which is written on a new post-it, labeled “2”. The presenter will read, “A time something I wrote really mattered was when…” Again, give the participants just a short amount of time to think and write the answer to this question.
- The third question will be labeled “3” on a new post-it. The presenter will read, “The worst insult I received about my writing was when…” Participants will take time to answer. Finally, on a new post-it, participants will write “4” and then answer, “The most important lesson I learned about writing was…” Post the numbered questions somewhere in the room or display it on a Smartboard so participants remember what each question was when they go to read their post-it.
- At this point, participants will be divided into groups, depending on the size of the larger group. (For 35 teachers, make 7 groups with 5 in each group). Participants will be given a paper that says “Home” and “School”. In the group, each participant should take a turn sharing what was written for each sentence starter. The participant has to decide if the memory is related to home or school. The post-it should be placed in the corresponding box on the construction paper. Groups can decide to have one person read and sort all their post-its at once or to go around and have each member share one post-it a time. When all the post-its are placed, group members should look at the home and school sections and draw some conclusions. Were the positive memories focused in one area? What about the negative memories? How might this influence the way we think about teaching writing to students? One person in each group should be ready to share out some of the thoughts discussed to the larger group.
- The presenter will ask the participants to reflect on what they just experienced, as well as their other knowledge and experiences of being a writer and teaching writing. Everyone will be asked to create a Writer’s Statement, stating something you believe about the teaching of writing. Participants might think about what writers need, what writers can do, what writers are, what writers believe… The statement should only be 5-10 sentences. Statements will be hung on the wall to create a Gallery of Writing Beliefs. Participants are invited to read these statements from other participants and reflect on how these beliefs will shape our instruction. They can add a post-it message, talking back to the writer’s statements. Presenters will invite conversation and reflection about this activity and how it might influence how teachers plan instruction for young writers.
I had the opportunity to present this activity twice this summer, and both times I found it extremely valuable. This experience helps educators tap into their writing memories, creates community as personal memories around writing are shared, starts conversations about the role teachers play in shaping young writer’s identities, and pushes teachers to think deeply about what writing is, what writers need, and how we can help them grow. The post-its and movement make this an interactive process, allowing for reflection, conversation, writing, and then reading and writing back to others Writer’s Statements. Teachers leave the PD session with a statement of what they believe about how writing should be taught, based on their memories, their life experiences, and the conversations they had with others during this workshop. How much more valuable and personal is that statement, drafted by the teacher herself, than a prepared handout on writing workshop?
If you try out this activity with other educators or students, I hope you share your experience with us!