Overcoming Anxiety About Displaying Student Writing
You see the beauty in your kids’ work: every misspelled word, every cross-out, every taped-on flap. You know that all that “messiness” is evidence of good work that kids are doing. Hard work.
But outside your classroom, the rest of the world might not see it that way.
If you’ve ever worried about displaying student writing, you are not alone. You want to protect your kids from those who would look at their writing and say “Look at that handwriting. The other class is so much neater,” or “Why is the spelling incorrect? Why didn’t they use a dictionary?” or “Why aren’t they writing more yet?” Your life as a teacher is already consumed with what you’re doing in your classroom; the thought of dealing with those outside the classroom can feel like too much.
I wish that I could wave a magic wand and somehow make it so that every teacher reading this post could teach in a community that supports student approximation, and sees the adorable, lovely, brilliance in the “messy” work kids need to do. But I can’t.
But here’s what we CAN do:
BEFORE AND AFTER
Most units of study in writing workshop have a turning point, a day where kids select the one or two pieces they plan to revise, edit, and publish. A suggestion I have is to save the originals, and allow children to make all their revisions on the photocopy.
First of all, when kids open up their writing folders and see a photocopy, it’s hilarious, and fun, and engaging. In my experience, kids have reacted as though something magical has happened overnight. “Is this MY story?” they’ll ask, incredulously. “How did it get in here like this? Did you photocopy it?!”
Second of all, many kids feel much more willing to make BIG revisions to the copy, knowing that their original is still safe and sound somewhere else. Now they can focus on making a new version of their story. They can make their revisions in a different color pen, making their work really stand out. They can cut parts out, tape flaps on to make room for more writing, or staple on more pages. You name it.
Let them know right away that the plan is to display the two versions side-by-side, and they’ll instinctively be inspired to make version two really different than the original, reaching for new revision strategies to try out.
Lastly, when you celebrate and display the “published” piece, you can truly celebrate the process by displaying the original, side-by-side with the revised and edited piece of writing.(Click here to learn more about the difference between “published” and “perfect”). Kids can notice and talk about the changes they made and why they made them, and a wider audience can better appreciate how much work went into revision and editing.
LABEL THE PARTS OF THE WRITING PROCESS AND/OR THE STRATEGIES
If part of your hesitation involves the concern that adults outside your classroom might not be able to identify the strategies and process your students went through, it might help to label your bulletin board clearly so that the strategies and process are explicitly celebrated.
You might opt to include pieces of writing that exemplify each step of the process, with a few students representing each stage. On one side of the bulletin board, you might hang 2-3 examples of students using various strategies for generating ideas, then next hang an example or two of students have sketched their idea across the pages to plan before writing, then examples of drafts that haven’t been revised yet, then revised stories or excerpts with particularly powerful revisions, and finally all the writing that has been revised and edited.
Another way to think about this is to display all your students’ work, and use post-its or slips of brightly colored paper to highlight the strategies: “Strong lead!” “Used dialogue to show feelings!” “Crossed out unnecessary information!”
INCLUDE AN EXEMPLAR OR MENTOR TEXT IN THE DISPLAY
Just as you use mentor texts and examples of great writing to inspire your students, those same texts can be included in your display of student writing to help others appreciate the work your students were aiming for.
For example, perhaps you read and reread Knuffle Bunny many times as your mentor text for personal narrative. You may want to include a copy of the cover with a caption (“We studied Mo Willems and learned to write like him!”).
Or perhaps you’ll include one or two key pages that inspired your class to use a particular strategy. Then you might post-it pages of writing from each student that demonstrate how they used that same strategy. (“We included actions like Mo Willems: ‘She went boneless.’)
Displaying a mentor text or exemplar helps readers appreciate the work your students are doing, and contextualizes student writing.
INCLUDE SPACE FOR POSITIVE FEEDBACK
One of the most meaningful aspects of putting student writing on display is that your young writers gain a very real sense that they have an audience for their writing. Getting positive feedback from their readers can fuel their next pieces of writing.
You might hang a baggie with a few packs of post-its on your bulletin board along with a few pens, so that passers-by can leave a note of encouragement or a compliment for your writers.
Or perhaps you’ll give readers a lens to read with, “We worked hard on writing with feeling! Leave a heart-shaped sticker on the places where our writing makes you feel something!” (Or dialogue, or description of the setting, you name it).
You might hang a large piece of chart paper to the side of your bulletin board so that readers can write general notes to your whole class, celebrating the bigger picture of the work.
CHANGING SCHOOL CULTURE
As a literacy coach, teachers will often express to me that it is not their colleagues they are worried about — it’s adult visitors and families of students who might not be familiar with writing workshop.
I have to say, that for every teacher who has expressed this concern to me, a parent has expressed the opposite concern to me. Parents tell me all the time that they are disappointed that they rarely see their child’s work on display, or that the work on display looks very “cookie cutter.” At a recent birthday party, a friend whose daughter goes to school in a different district confided in me. “Beth, I thought they were supposed to be doing independent writing? So why do I see the same hopes and dreams prompt on everybody’s bulletin board?”
Whether it’s the “hopes and dreams” prompt, or a seasonal craft project, acrostic poems, or other sentence starters/fill-in-the-blanks, it probably feels safer to display something that masks the wide range of abilities and interests and styles in your classroom. But time and time again, you will be alienating just as many families as you thought you were aiming to please.
More importantly, your students will have missed the important opportunity to fuel their sense of authentic audience and purpose. If you ever need reassurance, just visit this site and scroll through our posts, join our Tuesday Slice of Life community, or reach out to us on Facebook. Talk to your colleagues at school about changing the way your school uses it’s bulletin boards and public display spaces. You are not alone and we’re here to support you.
Many thanks to the amazing educators of the Mount Mansfield Modified Union School District in Vermont (MMMUSD) whose displays of authentic writing are featured here!