We Are Writers Here: Part of #TWTBlog’s Throwback Week
This week on Two Writing Teachers, we are each chosing another co-author’s previously published post to feature as part of our Throwback Week. We hope you’ll enjoy these “oldies but goodies” all week long.
This post written by Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski was originally part of our “Starting With What Matters Most” series from early fall 2016. It is such a lovely reminder of the importance of building a community of writers in your classroom. I return to her ideas on how to share your own authentic writing life with students again and again.
There are a lot of “to do’s” for classroom teachers at back to school time. As I think about my new group of third graders, currently still soaking up the sun on summer vacation, I know that I have a great responsibility. In a few weeks those bright little faces will be sitting in my classroom and so much depends upon what I’ve planned for them, the ownership I will release or not, the agency I help them develop, my word choice, my demeanor, my philosophy, and my expectations of what they can and cannot do. As Haim Ginott famously said, “I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.” What I say and do matters, and so does the way I introduce writing workshop.
So, as I plan those first few days of writing instruction, I pause to ask, “What matters most in writing workshop?” That is our question for this blog series, and each of the co-authors focuses on an important, critical component of teaching writing to students. When I think about what I first want my students to know, what matters most to me as a teacher of writing, more than capital letters or topic sentences or punctuation, I want them to believe they have ideas worth sharing and stories worth telling. I want them to know their voice matters and their words can make a difference. I want them to believe they are writers, right now, whatever their reading proficiency, whatever their language background, whatever their home circumstances. WE ARE WRITERS HERE. We all matter, we all belong, we all can and should write.
Why is it so important that my students believe they are writers with stories to tell? In Joining the Literacy Club, Frank Smith described how learning often happens in a social context, from those we see ourselves as being like and who encourage us to take part in those activities. If students believe they are writers, learning in a community of other writers, the lessons then, change from something-I-do-just-for-school-to-please-my-teacher, to life work and writing I do because it matters in my life. It’s been true for me: when I write and share in a community of teachers who also write and share (such as in Slice of Life), I feel more like a writer. The community encourages me, validates my ideas, and pushes me to keep writing. This is why I strongly believe that educators should be writers. Our approach and our conversations with students change when we are all part of this literacy club- all doing the work, all writers here.
What will this look like in third grade? A few ideas:
- Former 3rd graders sharing their writing: At the end of last year, my students made QR code summer notebooks. I am keeping my fingers crossed that some students wrote in their notebooks and will be willing to speak to my new students about being a writer. Hearing from their peers about why writing matters and seeing all the summer writing will hopefully be inspiring and motivating for my new writers.
- Read alouds: The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore by William Joyce is a fanciful story that makes deep connections between reading, writing, and life. The mantra “Everybody’s story matters” comes from this book and is worth reading and emphasizing. My Pen by Christopher Myers is another picture book that shows students how writing is powerful. The book starts, ‘There are rich people who own jewels and houses and pieces of the sky. There are famous people- musicians, athletes, politicians- whose words and actions spread across televisions and newspapers to every ear and eye across the world. Sometimes I feel small when I see those rich and famous people. But then I remember I have my pen.” The character identifies with being a writer, and being a writer gives him a voice in a world where he feels small. Other read alouds could focus on books where the characters write. In our last blog series, Beth Moore wrote a fantastic post on the topic of book characters who are writers.
- Cross the Room: This is a fun community building activity to do early in the year that can reveal much about your students. The class is split into two groups and face each other in a line, across the room. The teacher reads a statement. If the statement is true, students have to cross to the other side. If the statement is not true for that student, the student stays put. Writing related questions can be woven into this activity. For example, the teacher might say, “I wrote this summer” and see who crosses the room. Other statements could be: “I am a writer”, “I like to write in my free time”, “Writing is fun for me”, “I am excited about writing this year.” As students cross the room (or not), the teacher can get a sense of how the class as a whole feels about writing and how individual students perceive themselves.
- “I am a writer who”: Give students a slip of paper with the words “I am a writer who” on them and ask them to fill in the blank. This can be repeated every trimester to see if students are evolving in their idea of themselves as writers. This slip of paper can be kept in the student’s portfolio. When the teacher confers with the student, the teacher could ask the student to say a little more about what was written in response to that question. This can give some insight into the student’s beliefs, strengths, and areas of growth needed.
- Writing interviews: The class could brainstorm questions to ask a writer about how he/she learned to write, what he/she enjoys about writing, what is hard for him/her about writing, etc. The class could interview the teacher first and then split into partnerships who will interview each other. Interviews could be done in a video and uploaded to digital portfolios, such as SeeSaw. Students can also write a paragraph about the person they interviewed and share it with the class.
- Blogging: This will be my third year in third grade, and my third year blogging with students! Blogging has helped my students grow in voice, stamina, and writing identity. Last year, one of my students, who received several different academic intervention services, took on the Classroom Slice of Life blogging challenge and proudly told her other teachers she was a “blogger.” She would blog on the weekend and after school. Being a blogger became part of her identity. Another former student joined my after school blogging club last year in the spring. I’ve kept the blog open over the summer and she has been blogging nearly every day. She also proudly calls herself a blogger…and she is!
- The teacher as writer: In a classroom, not just the students are writers. As a member of the learning community, the teacher should also identify as a writer and walk the walk! Teachers can talk to their students about what they are writing and share their struggles and celebrations. I have a sign outside my door that shares what I am currently reading and writing. It is a quiet way to show that I am a person who reads and writes in real life, for real reasons. As much as possible, I try to share genuine examples of what I am writing and talk about my process with my students.
Creating a classroom of students who believe they are writers and who support each other as learners is my top priority when it comes to those early days of writing workshop. To me, it is what matters most. How do you help your students develop a writing identity? How do you grow in your own writing identity? What matters most to you when it comes to writing workshop? Please continue the conversation in the comments!