Engaging Writers: Solving Predictable Problems
Oh, the “Anyone? Anyone?” exquisitely painful moments. Those moments when you know you’ve lost your students, if you ever had them to begin with. Teachers have a lot to compete with nowadays, especially since many of our students have become accustomed to instant gratification and entertainment via technology like iPads and Smartphones. Writing is complex and the writer must actively think, organize and plan as part of the process. Pen must hit paper, or fingers must hit keys at some point: There is no faking it.
Teachers with solid classroom management can create a classroom where it looks like everyone is engaged. Children are sitting in their seats and quiet, pencils in hand or perhaps typing on a computer. But are the students excited about what they are writing? Are they passionate or going through the motions? Are they engaged or compliant? Will the writing they do make a difference in their lives? Do they believe they are writers with something to say in this world? Will the writing see the light of day or stay in a folder, or a teacher’s pile of papers to be graded?
The video below, from the movie Dead Poets Society, stands in stark contrast to the above video from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Notice the different levels of engagement from the students and the passion the teacher brings (or doesn’t) into the classroom.
So, I say, it starts with us. If we want engaged writers, and not simply compliant students going through the motions and counting the minutes until writing time is over, we need to find ways to capture their attention and their hearts. Friends, I am a classroom teacher finding my way, too. I don’t have definitive answers to this problem, but some suggestions for where we can start to truly engage our writers.
Wherever possible, offer choice of genre
My curriculum calendar is set and the genres I am required to teach include paragraph writing, personal essay, personal narrative, literary essay and persuasive speech. However, most of my students love writing fiction and especially enjoy illustrating characters in comic books. I’ve had students who wanted to write plays and fairy tales. I’ve seen students collaborate on books about sports, using Google Slides to work on the same book at the same time, adding many visual components and multimedia. I’ve never seen as much engagement with my writers until I let them choose their genre. Since I have a packed curriculum, in the past I’ve done this by finding one period in the week where I could let students pursue independent writing projects. The excitement and engagement from this one period a week often inspired students to write more at home and to want to write more during free moments at school. Students who didn’t enjoy writing workshop seemed to come alive when they were allowed to choose their genre.
Some resources that support the idea of independent writing and allowing students more freedom in selecting their genres:
Independent Writing: One Teacher- Thirty-Two Needs, Topics and Plans by M. Colleen Cruz
Joy Write: Cultivating High-Impact, Low-Stakes Writing by Ralph Fletcher
Make sure they know the WHY
I saw this tweet the other day:
Some of my third graders are less than excited to write essays. (Sometimes, I feel less than excited to teach essays, too.) Thinking about the WHY can help me remember the importance of this type of teaching and learning. In The Journey is Everything: Teaching Essays that Students Want to Write for People Who Want to Read Them, Katherine Bomer says, “In the electric, pulsating world around us, the essay lives a life of abandon, posing questions, speaking truths, fulfilling a need humans have to know what other humans think and wonder so we can feel less alone.” Reading this quote alone makes me feel more inspired to write essays and teach my students to do this well. If the only reason we are teaching something is to cross it off the list of required genres to teach, and the only reason our students are writing is because we asked them to do it, without understand of where this piece of writing might go and who would want to read it, we are teaching towards compliance. Showing students examples of writing in the real world, through published mentor texts and our own, teacher-written mentor text, is one way to make the writing real. I plan to start my own “Reasons to Write” display in my classroom, making the WHY part of all we do.
Allow for Digital Writing
Students are used to a multimedia world, so allowing them time to compose digitally is engaging. Images, songs, and videos can enhance a student’s message. My students love to blog and are motivated by all the decisions they make about font, images, background color, and style. They also love to comment on each other’s posts. Typing on Google Docs allows for collaboration and writing partners can comment on each other’s work without making definite changes. Platforms like Buncee also allow students to create a visual presentation to accompany their text. Interesting backgrounds, stickers, and a student reading aloud his writing are features of Buncee that might motivate writers more than pencil and paper.
Teacher as Fellow Writer
Identity is so important, isn’t it? When we see ourselves as people who write, when we know that writing adds value to our lives, it is so much easier to be authentic in our passion and enthusiasm for writing with students. Consider a classroom where the teacher does not write, feels insecure about her own ability to write, and dislikes teaching writing. How might it feel differently to be in a classroom where the teacher regularly writes, calls himself a writer, and believes writing enriches his life? When the teacher writes, instead of being the “corrector-in-chief”, wielding the red pen and making students believe she is the holder of all knowledge, the teacher is instead a fellow writer in the community, sharing strategies and tips learned from walking the walk. The teacher can empathize with the struggles of a writer because she, too, struggles as a writer. A teacher who writes can show students growth mindset in action- modeling the difficulties a writer faces and how to improve a piece of writing instead of promoting the idea that writing well is an inborn trait- some people are good writers and others aren’t.
We’ve explored the ideas of choice in genre, knowing the WHY, digital tools and teacher as writer on TWT before. If you would like to read more on these topics, check out the links below:
How do you create a classroom of engaged writers as opposed to compliant students just going through the motions? Continue the conversation in the comments and during our upcoming Twitter chat on November 6th.
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