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:
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).
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.
8 thoughts on “Remember the Power of Writing to Heal”
I just reviewed The Author’s Apprentice by Vicki Meigs-Kahlenberg which also talks about Heart Maps on middleweb.com. It’s a simple and beautiful idea I plan to use in my writing workshops. Thank you for talking about it here.
I love this post! Writing can definitely be used as a healing tool and some students might not even know it. It is so important to have students express what they are feeling through writing so it is not all built up inside them. Nice post!
Wow! How timely for me! As literacy coach, I have just stepped into a classroom to support a class whose teacher passed away unexpectedly. As a coach I feel I should model following the “curriculum” and do nonfiction writing, but it just doesn’t feel right. Only moments ago, I had this conversation with the teacher across the hall that what they need is to “just write”. She encouraged me to trust my professional judgment and teacher common sense and do what is best for the students! She also handed me back my Georgia Heard “Awaken the Heart” book with all of my sticky notes from previous years past. This just confirms for me what my plans for the next few weeks will be. Thank you for this post!
Lee, I am so sorry for your loss. How difficult this must be for you, your colleagues, and your students. I hope you and your school community find some peace through writing. Beth
Love this post, Beth! I’ve been thinking a lot about letting students follow their passions with writing and how that somehow doesn’t always match up with the set curriculum we have to teach. I’ll be sharing my thoughts around this in my post next week, but loved reading your take on it here. I also love Georgia Heard’s heart maps. We just used her Grateful Heart map this week as we think about Thanksgiving. While not directly related to a writing assignment,mining your heart for what you grateful for brings these ideas to the surface and then who knows?! 🙂
Thank you for this timelypost.
Thank you Beth. Writing has always been my default when I need to sort things out. It is wonderful that we can share with children that writing can help and heal, that written words can make a difference. Not long ago, I kept a gratitude journal for an entire year. Sometimes I wrote as little a a few words, sometimes it was several paragraphs. Not only was the writing helpful at the time, but I often read back through that journal now. When we write we preserve the memories and moments.
Thank you for this timely and thoughtful post
Comments are closed.