Time to Write

“Okay, thanks.  See you soon,” I said.  Untangling the twisted cord, I laid the beige telephone back onto its plastic cradle.  Sighing, I sat quietly, recounting to myself the conversation I’d just finished with David, the musical director at Jefferson High, a local arts magnet school.  The year was 1991.  After a brief introduction on the phone (we had never met), David had explained to me that he was in a bit of a pickle.  Now two weeks out from opening night, his piano player for the school’s production of the musical “The Wiz” had quit on him. David desperately needed someone to quickly fill in– only six rehearsals were left for six performances!  Knowing I am not a terrific sight-reader, I asked him about the difficulty of the musical score.  “It’s just jazz changes [chords],” he responded.  “Can you read jazz changes?”  Yes, I told him, I can read jazz changes. And suddenly the multitude of hours practicing jazz piano– practicing in small rooms in college; practicing on my mom’s piano; rehearsing with trios, ensembles, horn players–all those hours– came flooding back, assuring me I could do this job.  “You’ve found your piano player,” I said confidently.

Like learning to play the piano, writing is also a skill learned in use.  Learning to play the piano, like learning to write, requires hours of instruction, yes.  It requires hours of approximation, yes.  And it requires hours of failing, yes.  But most of all, learning these skills requires hours– and hours!– of practice.  Gosh, when I think back to the innumerable minutes and hours and days I spent devoted to a Franz Schubert sonata or a J.S. Bach invention, then later (in college) practicing the mysterious and beautiful jazz changes inside Duke Ellington standards or bossa novas by Antonio Carlos Jobim… it boggles my mind.  Some may wonder, how could I so confidently believe I could spend only six rehearsals preparing for sold out crowds of “The Wiz”?  It was because I had practiced– a lot.

Working in schools around the country, both as a teacher and staff developer, I have sometimes seen writing as something afforded only periodic attention at best.  As a beginning teacher, I will admit I operated mostly unaware that writing- like piano- required plentiful practice.  My students wrote…well, sometimes.  But now that I am older (and hopefully wiser!), I think about what kind of piano player (or writer) I would be without the hours of practicing?  Probably not that good.

Donald Murray, author of the seminal text A Writer Teaches Writing (Houghton Mifflin, 1985), teaches us that one of the most important things to a writer is time, time to write.  But with the many time constraints faced by middle school teachers, how can we be thinking about time in ways that make a difference for our students?  Recently, I attended a conference facilitated by Dr. Mary Ehrenworth, Deputy Director of the Teachers College Reading & Writing Project.  Quoting Donald Murray, Mary reminded us that like all writers, students need protected time to write.  She offered the following lenses for thinking about time for writing:

  1. How many minutes? It is vital that writers be afforded protected time to write.  Let’s begin with minutes and consider how many actual minutes writers can actually sustain writing with focus and concentration.  Of course, our goal as writing workshop teachers is to draw attention to the important concept of writing stamina.  One of the reasons we want our writers to have time to write is to improve their ability to write for sustained periods of time.  But interestingly, Mary Ehrenworth, a published author of several books and articles, pointed out last week that after around 25-30 minutes of writing, even she needs to take a pause, break, or breath to allow her mind to recharge a bit.  If a prolific author feels this way, how might our students need our support in organizing writing workshop time?  Of course, no two writers are the same; but generally speaking, it may be helpful to be aware that expecting students to sustain focus beyond, say, half an hour may not be in their best interest.  In middle school, this is likely all you will have.  But in situations where more time is available for writing, consider breaking it up with at least a mid-workshop interruption.
  2. How many days?  

Donald Murray is quite emphatic when it comes to the number of days students ought to be writing.  He says student writers need to be writing at least four days per week.  Otherwise, writers either cannot clearly remember what they were working on, or worse, they begin to feel disconnected from their thought processes.  This, in turn, results in kids developing a negative relationship with writing, something none of us wants to happen.  To illustrate, think about yourself when you only exercise once a week– with that schedule, how do you feel each time you exercise?  You likely never feel good or like you are gaining ground with your goal(s).  The same holds true for writing.  Student writers need to write frequently.

3. What kind of home/school balance can we thinking about?

Kids are transformed as readers at home.  However, when it comes to writing, kids are transformed as writers in school.  This means that the most important writing work kids do is in school, during school hours.  This is the place where they will (hopefully) be receiving expert instruction, feedback, and plenty of time to practice.

Now, that said, kids do need to eventually develop some habits that support doing some writing work outside of class.  This could mean: (1) trying out an argument on a family member, (2) retelling your story to at least three people, or perhaps (3) redrafting something that was revised at school.  Mary Ehrenworth recommends not asking kids to do the big, important writing work at home– big, important writing work should happen in school.  But as part of a think tank that studies student success beyond middle school, she also made clear that older kids will need to develop some ways of working outside school in order to be successful in high school and college.

One last lens we when it comes to considering time is making time to write ourselves.  Part of what we do in writing workshop is provide feedback to kids– in the form of one-to-one conferences, partnership conferences, or small groups.  One thing kids really need during independent writing time is feedback from a co-writer, not an “expert.”  Thus, when we pull up next to writers to offer feedback, we want to be able to authentically strike the tone of co-practitioner.  Kids need to know that we are writers, too; and sometimes writers give each other feedback.  Contrast this with kids who hear, “I’m an expert and you are not, so listen to what I tell you to do.”  You can hear the difference.

“The only way to learn to write is to force yourself to produce a certain number of words on a regular basis.”

It is only when we practice on a regular basis that we begin to meaningfully improve, that we gain confidence, and that we might start to dream that someday we will be able to take on any challenge as a writer.  I would argue we ought to all strive for these things for our kids.  When I reflect back on my confidence in saying yes to playing “The Wiz,” I can confidently say that practice had a great deal to do with it.  As one of my great mentors Chris Lehman once said, “We get better at what we do.”