Remember the Power of Writing to Heal

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This week I am again reminded of how life in the classroom intersects with the world outside the classroom. When children come to school having experienced tumultuous or frightening events at home, school is a space that remains constant, and can be a space that provides stability and support.

In the past week, children that I work with have experienced the loss of loved ones, parents getting divorced, moving to a new country, and at least one grim health diagnoses for a family member. They’ve also watched events unfold in their community and in the world with wide-eyed interest — and at times, fear.

These kids are also resilient and brave. And smart. Writing workshop is a space where students can sort through the stories of the events in their lives, and attempt to organize their thoughts. They can find connections between one experience and another. Through writing they can find meaning in the seemingly random events that shape their lives.

If you are searching for tools to support students who might benefit from using writing as a tool to heal, here are a few ideas:

HEART MAPS

I recently reviewed Georgia Heard’s beautiful book Heart Maps: Helping Students Create and Craft Authentic Writing on Two Writing Teachers. As soon as I put the book away on my shelf,  I was tucking it back into my work bag again.  This week, as part of teaching realistic fiction, I used heart maps to help a small group of students map out the troubles and fears in their lives (that might also be troubles that their characters could face). I grabbed a blank sheet of paper for each student, and drew a large heart on it. I modeled listing some of my own troubles and fears: my parents getting older, my son won’t sleep through the night, my daughter was very sick last week, a friend of mine who was bullied recently. I picked and chose topics to spark interest, but left room for students to extrapolate other ideas on their own.

One student looked across her own map, startled, and said, “Everything I’m worried about, all my trouble… it all comes back to moving.” It was if she had found the missing piece to a puzzle. She proceeded to plan out a story in which a girl moves to a new town. This young writer took the subject of moving to a new place–something that has been a source of uncertainty and stress for her in real life, and turned it into a story in which she gets to decide how it all turns out in the end. (Spoiler – everything turns out okay for her fictional character).

FREE WRITING

Occasionally, in between units of study, or at various points along the way, you might want to give students some space to simply free write. Especially if there is an event that you know has impacted students in your class, taking a day “off” to write and talk about their experiences or ideas makes your students feel seen and heard.

I have a memory of a conversation about this with a friend of mine who is also a teacher. Her daughter had lost her first tooth. As a teacher/mom, she exclaimed, “What a great story this will be!” but her daughter hung her head sadly and humphed, “Yeah, but we’re not doing stories any more at school.” My friend became concerned that her daughter never had any chance to write a story at school once the narrative unit of study was over. “Imagine you’ve experienced something hugely important to you, but you get to school and there’s not a single minute to write or talk about it?” my friend asked. “The only stories you get to share are the one that happen between September and November? That doesn’t seem fair to kids.”

Free writing can be a spring-board for conversations. Kids can get with their writing partner and ask questions like, “Why was this important to you?” or “How did you feel when this happened?” or “Did this change you? Did you learn something?”

These conversations help students think more deeply about their day-to-day experiences, build a stronger community in your classroom, foster empathy, and in turn help kids to generate more ideas in any writing situation.

WRITING TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE

There will also be times when your students identify problems from their lives that need to be addressed. My mother used to say, “Write a letter,” whenever I complained about anything — she meant it as a quip, but I always took it to heart. To this day, my instinct is to do some version of “write a letter” when there is an issue that I feel strongly about.

Many teachers engage in a unit of study designed to teach students to write persuasively, to argue for a change. This unit is often a favorite among students and teachers alike — but there’s no need to wait for a unit of study.

Sometimes something happens in your school or community that impacts children in real and important ways. These are opportunities to teach students how to use writing as a tool to make their voices heard, argue for solutions, help others, and spark positive change. When something terrible happens, or kids are facing something they feel is unfair — seize this as a teachable moment and give them space to write a letter, or petition, blog post, or speech.

Writing can be cathartic. It can also be challenging. You might offer children choices of materials and writing tools when kids are engaged in this kind of writing. Or offer up different strategies for recording ideas – full sentences, or notes. Sketches, or voice-to-text might be helpful, depending on the student. You may want to be extra vigilant that the writing is the child’s own (no marking on their papers or putting words in their mouths). You can teach or reteach how writing partners are mindful of each others’ feelings when writing is shared.

WRITE FOR YOURSELF AS WELL

November and December are a time of celebration for many families and communities — but it can also be a very stressful time of year. Keeping a journal, starting a blog, or writing letters to your children can help you sustain your energy and passion for teaching writing — especially when things get tough outside the classroom. As we head into winter, you might remember the power of writing to calm the noise in your own mind, and take a little time for writing that heals — for students and for yourself.