Acknowledging Writers to Disturb the Universe

Sometimes people we’ve never met before tell stories that leave a lasting mark on us.  Last week, author Jo Knowles paid a visit to my school in Connecticut as a guest author.  While speaking to the students in our cavernous gymnasium, Jo told stories about her life.  Two particularly memorable stories still resonate with me today and probably will for a long time to come: one story about a book that made a difference, and one story about a teacher who made a difference.

Jo first told the story of how she connected with a book for the very first time in high school.  The book was The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier.  In that book, a character hangs a poster in his locker that says:

Do I dare disturb the universe_

The author went on to also describe a teacher she had in college for whom Jo had written a personal essay (her first personal essay).  The piece was nominated for publication to a literary magazine, and subsequently Jo ended up being invited to present her writing to a group of professors on campus.  In our gym last week, Jo recounted the scene this way: “As I looked up from reading my essay,” she said, “I saw many people in the audience crying.  And it was the first time I felt like my voice was heard.

In writing workshop, we operate on multiple levels– we try to plan and deliver effective minilessons, we try to confer with our writers (and take some notes?), we create anchor charts, and so forth.  But what about validating the voices of our student writers?  Among all the dozens of things we do as teachers, are we folding in some of the most important aspects of teaching writing– (a) the belief that kids can do it, and (b) the outward expression of acknowledgement and validation?

As a teacher and now consultant, I work to envision my students the way the renowned artist Michelangelo envisioned his sculptures at the Accademia in Florence, Italy.  In creating these incomplete figures, Michelangelo believed his job was to chip away the extraneous material that hides the magnificent figure inside.

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But this process likely began with a belief that those beautiful figures were already in there... he just needed to do what he could to help them become revealed to the world.

This is a dramatic metaphor, I realize.  However, here are just a few tried-and-true tools I lean on to try to do this type of work:

  1. Begin with Belief- It is widely known, understood, and researched that people rise to the expectations that others have of them.  Lucy Calkins, Director of the Reading and Writing Project in New York City, once said, “Whatever your expectations are, that is the ceiling for your students.”  As difficult as it may sometimes feel, believing in the inner magnificence of each student is fundamental to nurturing a burgeoning internal narrative for young writers.  At a recent professional conference, Dr. Mary Ehrenworth shared the fact that writers are transformed at school (not at home).  This gives us great power!  But also, great responsibility.  We want to see each writer as that magnificent figure residing inside.  And the tools to remove the extraneous rock will not be the same for each student.  That’s important to remember!  Some will need lots of explicit modeling, while others will respond brilliantly to just studying a mentor text.  Some will write a lot because of the strategies you taught, while others need to set small goals at the bottom of a page to try and write towards.  All writers are different.  But by beginning with belief in them, we position ourselves well to make a difference.
  2. Compliment Conferences-– It has been a few years now, but co-author Beth Moore wrote a super helpful post on compliment conferences. These types of conferences do not attempt to explicitly teach a strategy, but rather remind or draw attention to something the writer is already doing (and maybe even doing well).  This is a beautiful way to lift the energy level in writers and help them see what is going right.  More importantly, these compliments have the power to usher in a whole new internal narrative: “My teacher hears me.  My teacher sees me.”  And the internal story can shift from, “My teachers thinks I’m a writer” —> “I’m a writer.”
  3. Body Language– When conversing or conferring with writers…Be amazed.  Be impressed!  Be struck by their brilliance! As we well know, nonverbal cues matter.  We want our writers to feel heard, so they need to see– physically see– that we hear them.  This can mean leaning in, nodding, smiling, and paraphrasing what they say (oftentimes elevating the level of language as you do so).  It’s important, too, that we sit at the same physical level as the writer with whom we are conversing or conferring.  Small things like these can make a big difference.

We can disturb the universe by not letting kids wait until college to feel their voices have been heard.  We can disturb the universe by sending confident young writers into the world who believe their words matter.  Jo Knowles ended her presentation with this:

I disturb the universe by writing books that shed light on the dark parts of life, hoping to help readers feel less alone.  If we share stories of these kids, we begin to force conversations about things that need to change.

I would suggest that by working positively with and acknowledging young writers, we teachers can disturb the universe, too.