You can tell a lot about a person by what they choose to celebrate. Recently, I was able to sit in on a 7th grade Information Writing Celebration. After participating in historical fiction book clubs, students selected a topic within the time period of their novel to learn more about. Students read terrific books like Lions of Little Rock, by Kristin Levine, The King on Mulberry Street by Donna Jo Napoli, Saving Zasha, by Randi Barrow, and Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson. Consequently, students delved into topics like segregation, immigration, war dogs, slavery, etc. to build their knowledge for informational writing in writing workshop.
Early in the process, students knew who their audience would be– parents, teachers, administrators, other school personnel (like me), and their peers would be reading their writing. So…how did knowing this affect them as writers? I wondered. Knowing that on a certain date, a celebration would be held and that an authentic audience would be assembled for their writing, what kinds of effects did that have on them as writers? I decided to ask them, and I found what these seventh graders said to be quite instructive:
“It made me challenge myself more,” responded Luke. “I tried harder to make my writing the best it could be. I don’t think I would’ve done that otherwise.”
Samantha said, “I felt like there was more pressure on me, but that was good. It forced me to try to make my piece the best it could be.”
“It was terrifying!” Julian told me, eyes nearly popping from his head. “I was really, really nervous. But once I started to hear and read feedback on my writing from someone other than my teacher, it made it worth it.”
Having spent my career in middle schools (23 years and counting), I understand the kinds of pressures a segmented, unforgiving middle school schedule can impose on all involved, especially the teachers. With special schedules, snow days, professional development days, concerts, assemblies, field trips– teachers often begin asking me, “How can I possibly fit in a writing celebration?! There goes another day!” And you know what? They’re right. Having taught for 15 years in seventh and eighth grade classrooms, I sympathize with concerns about time and the need to cover required curriculum.
However, according to one of my great mentors, Dr. Mary Ehrenworth, “An [important] kind of response [we can provide to our kids] is going to be making a really big deal of their publishing. If they write, and it goes into a milk crate, kids stop writing.” Mary suggests that if teachers are the only audience for student writing, we lose an opportunity- we lose an opportunity for authentic engagement, student agency, and real excitement that can only be generated by a wider audience.
I think of writing celebrations as akin to reading the final chapter of a book. When I recently came to the end of Forge, a terrific historical fiction book by the incredible Laurie Halse Anderson, I didn’t stop before the last chapter– I finished it! As readers, we would never dream of not reading the final chapter of a book we have put in the time and effort to read. So, why would we publish something so that only one person could read it? Now, perhaps this comparison doesn’t resonate with you, but allow me to offer my top three reasons to make time for celebrations:
- Writers write for an audience…and celebrations provide an audience. Everything we do in writing workshop, as much and as often as possible, is meant to closely mirror what real writers do in the real world. And one thing writers do is write for an audience. Deb Frazier recently wrote a great post about authentic audience here.
- Implicit messages matter because they help to nurture a writerly identity. The value we place on writing helps nurture a writerly life. When during the course of a busy school year, a teacher is willing to prioritize the celebration of writing, this sends a powerful and important unspoken message. Stacey Shubitz once wrote about showcasing not just products but process during writing celebrations. She wrote, “…Celebrating a child’s unique process shows the child that their way of doing things is valued and respected in the classroom.”
- Celebrations are fun! In the rigorous academic world in which we all now teach and coach- a world which worships standards, accountability, rigor, testing, data, objectives, evaluation, etc. (none of which inspired any of us to enter this sacred profession, I’m guessing), why not take one day- one period- to celebrate writing and acknowledge our writers? Especially when the benefits are so contributory to what we are trying to achieve as writing workshop teachers.
Types of Celebrations in Middle School
Over the years, I have experimented with different types of writing celebrations. Here are a few to consider:
Museum Celebration: The celebration I discuss above was a version of a “Museum Celebration.” During a museum celebration, writers are invited to place their published piece of writing in front of them, right next to a paper entitled, “Feedback for ______ (student’s name here).” Then, when the celebration is to begin, all writers (including the teacher, hopefully) stand and find a piece of writing to read and respond to on the feedback sheet. Once a reader finishes, s/he looks around the room to find another piece to read. Self-regulating, simple and elegant, this type of celebration is low prep and worth the small amount of effort, as students typically love receiving feedback from their peers!
Small group read alouds: As a teacher, I loved to invite parents and guardians into my classroom to participate in writing celebrations. Typically, I would send out an invitation ahead of time that included an RSVP- this would provide me with a general estimate on how many guest listeners would be in the room that day. I liked to set up these celebrations as small group read alouds, working to be sure attending parents were spread across groups of writers. After a short welcome and introduction, writers would begin sharing their pieces one by one, with applause following each one!
Author’s Chair: Author’s chair is a format I like to employ when pieces were short- like original poems or vignettes. I found that students were typically reluctant to volunteer toward the beginning of class; but once one or two writers have taken the chair to share their work with the class, most others clamor for their opportunity. Note: Recognizing this format rewards extroverts and likely produces anxiety for my introverts, I would usually reserve the last few minutes of the celebration for small group sharing.
Principal’s Choice Award: This is a new idea a colleague and I decided to pilot, and it proved to be successful. During the aforementioned information writing unit and subsequent celebration, students created and published Google sites. Parents were invited to come be an audience for the seventh grade writers. During the celebration, both students and parents were invited to select and nominate an informational piece to be reviewed for a “Principal’s Choice Award.” Our principal then reviewed those nominated and selected one to be acknowledged on our morning announcements and Tweeted out for public viewing. The site was also posted on our Library Media Website.
Whatever way you choose to celebrate your students’ writing- whether it’s in-person or digital in some way- know that you’ve made an important decision to support their writerly identity. You are weaving into your teaching a crucial, yet underappreciated facet of a writer’s life: that is, we write to be read. And that can act as a contagion for some writers, leading to not just more skill, but more love for writing. And isn’t that something we want for all our writers?