In the classic book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott writes, “Even if only the people in your writing group read your memoirs or stories or novels, even if you only wrote your story so that one day your children would know what life was like when you were a child and you knew the names of every dog in town- still, to have written your version is an honorable thing to have done. Against all odds, you have put it down on paper, so that it won’t be lost. And who knows? Maybe what you’ve written will help others, will be a small part of the solution.”
I love Bird by Bird, and one of my favorite things about the book is how Anne makes the case that writing helps you make life more meaningful. It’s not about becoming a published, famous author because honestly- most of us aren’t going to be that. But all of us can use writing to show the people in our lives they matter to us. All of us can use writing to express our concern about our world and the way people are treated. All of us can use writing to remember, to understand, to question, to honor- to mark the moments of our lives with words to be read and reread.
And so, with these thoughts foremost in my mind, I began the writing year with my third graders gathered around my rocking chair. A bag in my hands, filled with writing that has mattered to me. I told them stories of when writing had been important in my life. I showed them an A-Z book I made for my husband when we were dating. I described how my grandparents meant so much to me, and I read a special speech, a eulogy, to honor their lives. I showed my best friend’s wedding picture and shared how I wrote a toast to tell her how much she meant to me, to wish her well as she started a new chapter in her life. I explained that I wrote blog posts about my children, and poems about them, and letters to them. Writing has mattered in my life and, on this day, I invited them to make it matter in their lives, too.
We came up with a list of possibilities for what writers could create- cards, songs, poems, books, cartoons, signs, plays, and more. On this first day of writing together, I invited them to make a piece of writing that mattered to them. When our time was up for the day, I invited them to keep writing and working on these pieces.
The next day, two students returned with writing they kept working on from home. One student wrote a song about school. Another student wrote her own recipe for chocolate chip sprinkle pancakes. As a class, we celebrated their efforts. The next day, as I was trying to get everyone lined up, a student handed me a piece of paper. I put it down without looking at it, only to realize after the class went home that this shy little girl had written a song for her brother. It was Friday, and I had to wait all weekend to tell her how proud I was of her and to share her song with the class. The following day, another student showed me a song she wrote for her baby brother, after being inspired by her classmate. We listened to her sing her beautiful song for the little brother she loves so much.
Teaching writing isn’t easy. We can get lost in all that needs “fixing” in our students’ work, lost in the standards and district curriculum maps, lost in the products we need to hang on a wall for a display. We find our way when our WHY is nearest to our hearts: Why do our students need to write well? How will writing play a role in their lives? How will writing make their lives more meaningful? What matters the most when it comes to teaching young writers?
When faced with a sea of children, looking to you to show them why they should write anyway, let them know that writing matters to you. Invite them to see how it can matter to them.