The Importance of Starting Practice with WHY: Nurturing Independence from the Start

“It’s not what you do that matters, it’s why you do it. What you do simply serves as proof of what you believe.” -Simon Sinek  

Purpose matters. 

Long ago, I remember walking through my classroom, getting ready to confer with my writers. I came across Noah. It was easy to notice him. His not-so-quiet giggles and whispers gave him away. I walked up, sat down beside him, and quietly asked, “How’s it going?” 

After a short pause, he looked up at me, and with a great big uncomfortable grin, responded, “Fine.” 

It wasn’t fine. He wasn’t writing, and it was not the first time… or the second. 

“I notice you found a nice spot to write… You have a pencil and your notebook…” I stopped talking. Patience, I reminded myself. Good things come to those who wait. I waited. Just a few seconds later it came spilling out of him, “This isn’t for a grade, so why do I have to do this?” 

He was right about one thing. It wasn’t for a grade. He didn’t understand why we were writing every day. He didn’t see the purpose. It was not enough to share that priceless piece of information once, at the start of the school year. 

Starting our practice each day with purpose, matters.  

Starting Practice with Purpose 

One of the many things I learned from Starting with Why by Simon Sinek is the importance of leading with clear purpose. 

How often do we ask ourselves about what leads our thinking on the teaching of writing? Is our purpose curriculum, or something much more significant? Why do we teach the way we do? And… How do we articulate why this, not that

I often struggle to articulate what, for me, is more emotional than academic, what is often easier for me to deliver in a classroom, than to explain to peers in words. Purpose, when delivered with laser accuracy from one human to another, cultivates drive, grit, and inspiration. When delivered clearly, purpose can move more than curriculum, it can shift lives. 

“I have a dream… I have a dream that one day…” – Martin Luther King

“Just like hopes springing high, Still I’ll rise.” – Maya Angelou

These words have little meaning without the feeling unearthed by the purpose or belief that drives them. It is a feeling transferred from one human to another from a place so deep, it reaches the limbic system, our emotional brain. Purpose inspires us from a place of emotion. It moves us, but because it resides in the place of our brain with no ability for language, it is difficult to explain.

Here, with clear purpose, is the place from which we must find ways to teach.

Making Purpose Clear

We write to be active participants in the world, to find hope, give hope, grow a voice… and for many other reasons. Saying aloud what we believe about writing is one way to make purpose clear.

Back in 2018, I co-authored this Blogger’s Oath with a group of my students. It served as a reminder of the purpose, cause, and beliefs that lead our writing community. It was what we decided, as a collaborative group, to be our purpose during our after school writing community, Hour of Blog.

There are countless ways to convey our purpose in our classrooms. We surround ourselves with the evidence of what we believe. When we cover our walls with student work, as Stacey describes in her post, Starting the Year with Empty Walls, it is evidence of what we believe. However, much of it can be invisible. What we value or believe also comes through in our body language, the tone of our voice, or the love in our eyes as students share their work with us. 

Three ways to make purpose clear (evidence):

  1. Use student work as mentor text.
  2. Show students the power of their voice by using powerful examples of student voice. Video example: The Girl Who Stopped the World for Five Minutes
  3. Publish student work for authentic audiences. (blog, radio, podcast, parents, etc.)

Purpose is not a practice to be reserved for the start of a school year. It is a continuous action planted within every decision, interaction, and activity. Every word we say and every action we make is an opportunity to communicate purpose and a chance to inspire others. 

Inspiring Purpose in Writers 

We inspire writers in the classroom by inviting them to write within safe and supportive writing communities. We hold strong these safe and supportive writing communities, because we believe places like these grow powerful writers. Students are not inspired by what we teach or how we teach. They are inspired by meaningful purpose-driven experiences nestled deep within rich writing communities.

KEOS 89.1 FM, May 2019

According to Sinek, “we are drawn to leaders and organizations that are good at communicating what they believe. Their ability to make us feel like we belong, to make us feel special, safe, and not alone is part of what gives them the ability to inspire us.”

When students feel safe, supported, and understand why the work is important, they have greater opportunities for learning. Sharing why the work matters, creates a “North Star” of sorts. Having a “North Star” for purpose keeps the writing journey focused. It pulls everyone in the same direction, regardless of ability. When we all move in the same direction towards something greater, we learn to help each other along the way, lift each other when we fall, and move forward, together. 

Students who are immersed in safe supportive environments develop trust and trust leads to growth.

There are many ways to build safe supportive writing communities. Three ways I work to cultivate a classroom environment where students can feel special, safe, and not alone are described below: 

  1. How do you make students feel special? Listen to a piece of their writing and celebrate it. Glow as if you were listening to the greatest work of writing created. Leave out the “work on…” part every once in a while and enjoy the raw talent of a growing writer. 
  2. How do you help students feel safe? In a writing workshop, we work to become independent. When mistakes are made, do not humiliate or shame students. Hold private conversations, even if you need to hold several in one day. Do not sacrifice vulnerability and trust for time or impatience. According to psychologist, Daniel Goleman, “it usually takes three to six months of using all naturally occurring practice opportunities before the new habit comes more naturally than the old.” It makes little sense to give a student just a few opportunities to adjust behaviors. Students need high expectations and at most six months to grow and adjust.  
  3. How do you help students feel they are not alone? Write in front of students and let them see you make mistakes. It proves that we are in this writing work together. Students also love to help you fix teacher writing.

According to psychologist, researcher, and expert on traumatic stress, Bessel van der Kolk, every human interaction, from the minute to the grand, shapes the human brain. 

There are complexities required to create such environments. Growing these unique learning environments may seem impossible. I have learned from many years of teaching in a Title I school, that it is possible. It is possible to keep high hopes, goals, and expectations, especially for those students who keep little belief in their own abilities. Our responsibility is to believe in them as much as we believe in the beauty of the ocean or the light of the sun. It is a skill, as teachers, we are challenged to master with authenticity. And at some point, when we are not expecting it, our students will begin believing in themselves. 

When students feel valued and understand they are a part of something bigger, they will be moved. They will be inspired. Lifelong learning happens through meaningful experiences that inspire us.

It is important to begin and maintain our work with clear purpose. Purpose leads to inspiration. Writers achieve, thrive, and grow more, inside and outside of the classroom, when they are inspired by purpose. 

Noah

I didn’t make my purpose clear to Noah that afternoon, years ago. What I failed to make clear was the purpose for writing each day. Noah continued to write the rest of the year and participated as much as he was invited. I’m not sure he developed the love of writing I wanted for him, but he learned to write well enough and moved on to the next part of his journey. I’ve learned much since Noah left my classroom. I learned that if we want students to value the work, thrive in it, grow from it, purpose must lead. 

For more on this –

  • Start with Why by Simon Sinek 
  • The Brain and Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman
  • The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk

Giveaway Information:

  • This giveaway is for a copy of No More “I’m Done!” (Link to: https://www.stenhouse.com/content/no-more-im-done) and No More “How Long Does It Have to Be?” (Link to https://www.stenhouse.com/content/no-more-%E2%80%9Chow-long-does-it-have-be%E2%80%9D) by Jennifer Jacobson. Thanks to Stenhouse Publishers (Link to: https://www.stenhouse.com) for donating a copy of each of these books — one book for a primary educator and one book for a secondary educator. (You must have a U.S. mailing address to win a print copy of this book.)
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