The Hard Parts

Earlier this month, I had the privilege of attending the TCRWP August Writing Institute. The week began with Lucy Calkins delivering an inspirational keynote, “Learning from the Hard Parts” inside the Nave at Riverside Church. Parts of it have been rattling around in my mind for the past few weeks.

Lucy talked about cultivating spaces in writing workshop where children share their stories. She quoted Jack Gantos as saying:

The first thing you need to address in helping kids become writers is the thorny worry that faces kids and most of us that our lives aren’t worth writing about.

This gave me pause.

When a child says they don’t have anything to write about, I tend to think this stems from the thought that their lives aren’t worth writing about. All children deserve to know their lives can be turned into stories. Even stories that don’t have happy endings. As Lucy stated:

When we incorporate our misfortunes into a coherent life narrative, we don’t make the wrongs right, but we make them precious. We learn to take the traumas and turn the worst moments of our lives into narratives of triumph.

Lucy implored those of us sitting in the Nave to be moved by children’s lives so they can be moved by their own lives. This means we must listen to kids’ writing and to the stories of their lives so they listen to their lives. In other words, it’s a big deal to teach kids to see their lives as stories; stories in which the characters have big dreams, motivations, and encounter trouble. Because kids encounter trouble. As Lucy said:

It’s a big deal that we can find the grace and courage to grow through the hard stuff.

Next, Lucy talked about feedback. She reminded us in life we’re all going to get feedback that isn’t so great. However, she said one of the most important things each of us can learn is how to take feedback that isn’t delivered in the perfect way and grow from that feedback. To that end, she said:

A person’s ability to metabolize feedback is driven by the particular way a person tells his or her own identity story. People who regularly author stories about trouble somehow author insight and somehow bounce forward. Those are people who can make use of hard feedback, even if it’s poorly delivered.

As a parent and literacy educator, it’s my hope every child enters the classroom in the fall with many positive experiences behind him/her. However, I know many kids have received feedback that’s been delivered in less than optimal ways. (Or worse, in destructive ways.) Therefore, it’s every writing teacher and coach’s job to deliver feedback in direct, but kind, ways so kids can move forward as writers.
For those of us who encounter children who shut down whenever it’s time writing workshop, it is worth pulling alongside these kids and talking to them about things they’ve struggled with — be it life or hurtful feedback. It’s through these conversations we can help kids bounce forward by being the authors of their lives… because every person’s life and story matters.

The work of teaching writing to children matters. I wish you luck as you help kids through the hard parts this school year.

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N.B.: To read more from Lucy’s keynote address, search #TCRWP on Twitter from July 31st from 8:30 – 9:30 a.m. You should be able to find lots of tweets from her speech.