Where is the Attention?

“I couldn’t believe she said that,” came the voice on the other end of the phone.  My colleague and I had been discussing a recent conference we had both attended. At this conference, the presenter had talked about the idea that writing for a broader audience is inspiring to student writers.  As a quick suggestion– almost as an aside– this particular presenter suggested binding student writing into an anthology and taking it to the local coffee shop where customers could read it. Now, I heard this suggestion as a brilliantly simple, very doable manner by which teachers could create a low-prep opportunity for students to reach a wider audience.  However, my colleague sitting across the room that same day (and now on the phone with me) had a different reaction…

Listening as a literacy coach, my colleague explained, the suggestion to place student writing in plain view of the public could cause teachers to shift all focus from writing process to writing products“If teachers knew their kids’ writing was going to be read by the general coffee-drinking public,” she said, “they could focus all teaching energy on making sure the writing pieces were flawless…instead of devoting that energy to making sure students were growing as writers.  And this is the opposite of what we preach: Writing workshop teachers teach the writer, we don’t fix the writing.”

A pause ensued at this point in our conversation.  And suddenly I understood her concern; she was saying that if we suggest to teachers that they publicize their students’ work in a space where just anyone could read it, then in the classroom this could result in a material shift in instructional attention away from student learning, growth, and writing process to a focus instead on perfect pieces of writing.  Because, after all, these pieces placed in Starbucks would be reflections of the teacher…wouldn’t they?  My answer to that question:  It depends.  “Where is the attention?”  I asked.  Let me explain.

A few years ago, I wrote a post on the importance of writing celebrations.  In that post, I quoted Dr. Mary Ehrenworth’s suggestion that if teachers are the only audience for student writing, we lose an opportunity for deep and authentic student engagement, agency, and genuine excitement.  What’s more, students miss out on the chance to feel that their writing really matters because…well, someone besides the teacher is going to read it.  What I did not acknowledge in that post, however, was the very real concern my trusted colleague was raising about teachers’ fear of student work casting a poor reflection on the instructor.

While I can certainly see this argument, I would pose the following:

Where is the attention?  I would posit that when we make student writing about us, when we interpret kids’ hard work and accomplishments as somehow all about us (the teachers), then we are losing sight of where attention needs to be: on the students. 

To be a kid is to be in a long state of approximation.  We see this in our day-to-day interactions with kids, as we watch them approximate published writers in several different ways.  And let’s face it, it is rare to find a middle school student who writes like a professional author, who demonstrates complete command over all grammatical structure and conventions of language.  Does that mean we should never allow a wider audience to read their work?  I would argue no, that these writers– as perhaps imperfect as they are, as maybe not quite “where they ought to be,” as even maybe even “below benchmark”(adult label)– deserve a wider audience, too.

Let’s think about this scenario hypothetically for a moment:  Early on in a unit of study, you look into the eyes of your writers and tell them, “Hey, I want to let you know that I have spoken to the manager at Starbucks, and she’s pretty excited to place your writing on a few of the tables in the shop where customers can read it.  I’ve told her how proud I am of your work as writers, and I let her know her customers won’t be disappointed!”  Some of you, I imagine, just completely wrote off this scenario as “No way, no how”, am I right?  Hear me out here… if you were a teacher who would dare to be so bold as to create a public forum for your students in this way, just think about what you’ve created:  a possibility for you and your writers to live into.  Will your students be nervous?  Maybe.  Will you be nervous? Probably.  But in carving out such a possibility for you and your students, you have created a commitment behind which everyone will line up their actions.   You have created an authentic scenario through which every real writer in the world lives:  Someone is going to read my writing, so I better make it the best it can be.

The next step, of course, is to trust that your students will rise to the occasion.  You might say, “I know this may sound scary, but I know each of you will rise to this occasion.  I believe in you.”

Last year, when I wrote about writing celebrations, I interviewed some student writers about the fact that parents would be coming into the school to read their writing.  How did that affect them?  Here are a few things I heard:

“It made me challenge myself more,” responded Luke.  “I tried harder to make my writing the best it could be.  I don’t think I would have done that otherwise.”

Samantha said, “I felt like there was more pressure on me, but that was good.  It forced me to try to make my piece the best it could be.”

For those of you reading this and still struggling to imagine ever even considering the Starbucks suggestion, consider placing a bit of a disclaimer in the front of your anthology:

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By taking the attention off ourselves, we can create real opportunity for our students as writers.

While, of course, teaching writing is extraordinarily important work that can be transformative for our students, in the end our work is not about us: It is about our students. 

And great possibility lives in the idea that when we can keep the attention on them, they will flourish as writers.

After hearing my side of the argument, my colleague encouraged me to write this post on Two Writing Teachers.  After we talked, she felt that the notions of committing to publicizing our students’ writing in a public way without compromising quality instruction that focuses on growth and approximation, that removing the attention from ourselves and focusing instead on our students, that  believing our kids can rise to such an occasion, and that  “letting go” of control a bit… all of these were worth writing about here.  So I did.  What are your thoughts?  We’d love to hear from you!