Lights, Camera, Action! 3 Tips for Creating Maximum Effect During a Writing Lesson

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“Okay, scene one…lights up!” came the voice of the stage manager in my headset.  Looking down at the console before me, I pushed a button.  Presto! The lights came up, illuminating my high school classmates, their costumes, the scenery…all of it.  It was like magic.

But this was not magic.  No, for weeks and weeks, the cast and crew of “Our Town,” a play written by Thornton Wilder, had actually rehearsed and rehearsed.  And as the production assistant in charge of lighting, I had worked closely with our director to do a number of things:  first, we determined which parts of the stage needed what type of lighting and when; second, we worked with technicians who helped to hang specific lights to cast various colors upon certain locations on the set; and third, I had spent considerable time programming the lighting console to bring up the many different lighting schemes across the show.  So no, there was no real magic involved.

But to the audience, it looked like there was some magic.

Before teaching a lesson in writing workshop, I often harken back to my time spent in theater productions.  As Mary Ehrenworth, Deputy Director of Middle School at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, once taught me, “Teaching writing requires a lot of work ‘off-stage.'”  Of course, she didn’t mean spending weeks preparing one minilesson.  But walking myself through and rehearsing what I will model for young writers so as to create the desired effect(s) (much the way theater lights do) I have found to be extremely helpful.  Whether we are using Lucy Calkins and Colleagues’ Writing Units of Study or our own curriculum and lessons, it’s just so important to walk through the big steps of our teaching ahead of time so that we plan for maximum learning impact.

So, what type of “effects” might be desired?  For me, I think about a few different ones:

  • Effect 1:  The authentic struggle of a writer– Let’s face it, writing is hard.  With this in mind, it is important we model struggle while we are teaching.  When modeling a writing strategy in writing workshop, for example, we want to be mindful of making things look easy.  I can remember the days when I unveiled a perfect writing example I had created, showed it to my students and said, “Now, you go do that.”  Although we might all agree that a strong example does help to build a vision, it can also send the unintended implicit message that could sound like something like this in the minds of our writers: “Writing happens in a magical place that you don’t have access to. Sorry about that.”  Thus, to create the desired effect that writing is a challenge– even for me, the teacher! — I try to model some of that struggle right in front of students.  This sometimes sounds like:
    • “Hmm…now, how could I do that in my writing?  Let me see…”

    • “Gosh, what’s a way this might work for me, I wonder? Umm…”

    • “I’m not sure how I might do this…do any of you have some ideas?  Turn to your partner and try say a few ideas…I’ll listen in to your conversations.”

By showing students– even if it is rehearsed off-stage– that you, yes you, struggle with writing, you convey a more authentic version of how writers work in the world.

Sometimes, as Lynne Dorfman and Rose Cappelli suggest in their short video (posted by Stacey Shubitz on Monday), teachers might even allow themselves to struggle for real, showing students how we face down typical writerly problems like false starts, unanticipated developments, writer’s block, organizational conundrums, etc.  Dorfman and Cappelli explain that by allowing students to see our real struggles, we help foster a different type of authentic respect for us as writers, not just as teachers.  And that, in turn, makes us more authentic writing mentors, teachers, and even co-authors.

  • Effect 2: The enthusiastic stance of someone who loves to write– Another effect I work to create when teaching students is that, well, I love writing.  Even when it’s hard!  On any given day, I’ll use the tone and tenor of my voice to communicate genuine enthusiasm for what I’m trying to teach the writers in front of me.  And oftentimes, I’ll position that genuine excitement around what I myself hope to accomplish as a writer myself that day.  For example, during the demonstration, I often play up the fact that my draft has really gotten my ‘juices going,’ and I can’t wait to try this new strategy out in my writing.  Once I model how it might work, I’ll look at the kids and say something like, “Wow, it’s really better now, isn’t it?”  And that’s the moment I can see in their eyes that many of them become truly excited about the prospect of their writing improving in that same fashion.

Exuding passion for writing is contagious.  So shining a light upon the fact that writing can be exciting can kindle all kinds of writing flames.  For I believe kids need to know this work, this writing work, is worth the time.  Playwright Edward Albee was once quoted as saying, “The act of writing is an act of optimism.  You would not take the trouble to do it if you felt it did not matter.”

  • Effect 3: The growth mindset of a writer- A now popular and important term among educators is the ‘growth mindset.’ Growth mindset is a perfect complement to one of the theories that undergird writing workshop: Writing is a craft and we can get better at it (through hard work).  In my role as teacher, this is simply an essential frame of mind to model for students.  Once they see that we believe it is possible to become a stronger writer, they start to believe it, too.

It’s been many, many years since that beloved “Our Town” production played in my hometown.  But I will never forget the payoff of seeing standing ovations on some of those nights. Crowds of people were truly moved, touched, and inspired. So one could say that the hard work and rehearsal it took to prepare was worth it.

I would argue that the hard work to prepare for our students is also worth it.  If we do it right, we can make magic happen, magic that looks like writers who believe in themselves and think they can change the world.  And that’s even better than a standing ovation.

How do you prepare ‘off-stage’?  We would love for you to share some of your tricks and habits with our community!