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Joy and Agency: An Origin Story

In this strange year, I find myself circling back to joy, fixating on what is working, on the parts of my day and my life that still manage to sing. And for me, writing and the teaching of writing is always joyful (even over zoom). 

Last July, I began an MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults. And while adding 25 hours a week of reading and writing to an already full plate has not been the most ideal timing. . . I’ve never been more motivated to write. 

To me, this is worth exploring. There is something working, something that might translate to writing workshop with kids. 

When this school year started, I was certain I was going to fail. As my job description expanded overnight from instructional coach in a pandemic to instructional coach in a pandemic plus remote kindergarten teacher, I thought there was no way I would be able to keep up with the graduate level critical and creative writing work required at VCFA, let alone the ambitious reading requirements. 

I turned in my first packet to my advisor in late August—two critical essays, creative pages (a YA novel in verse—a form I had never tried before), an annotated bibliography of what I had read that month, and a cover letter reflecting on my process and goals. 

I was terrified. 

Three days later, I received a response from my advisor that set the tone for the semester ahead. In their six page letter, as well as margin notes for each of my submissions, my advisor offered feedback and asked questions that lit me up as a writer. I felt so seen, so understood, so challenged in the best possible way. 

I couldn’t wait to get back to writing. 

I have never had anyone work so hard to get to know me as a writer before. It was so much more than the words on the page. My advisor’s sustained attention across the semester left no doubt that they were as invested in my success as I am. Each month, I looked forward to their response, because I knew it would be what I needed to keep growing. And I was determined to keep growing. 

Reflecting on my own level of agency, I am certain that it came from being seen, from being taken seriously as a writer. I couldn’t help but take myself seriously—and, as a result, invest the time necessary to take my writing seriously—with this level of support. 

And while I know kindergarten writing workshop might feel a million miles away from graduate school, agency is agency. Writing identity is writing identity. 

I think about my kindergarten students, who are developing identities as writers as they both physically learn to write and cognitively learn to represent words and ideas in abstract form. They’re discovering purpose and audience for writing. They’re internalizing the concept of word-ness. They’re breaking words into individual sounds and putting them back together again. They’re becoming increasingly fluent with letter/sound correspondence. They’re building muscle memory for letter formation. They’re developing stamina for sustained attention on a book over a sitting and over days. They’re making choices about the stories they want to tell, the ways they want to tell them. 

This is all really hard work. 

Sometimes I wonder how any child musters the persistence necessary to keep at it. I think about what it takes to not give up on something so hard. I think about the purpose(s) kids have for writing, and I wonder if it’s enough. I think about the ways members of writing communities cheer each other on.

A frustration I sometimes experience, when collaborating with colleagues who teach primary-aged writers, is a tendency to focus exclusively on the nuts and bolts of writing—the finger spaces and the handwriting, the letter sounds and the conventions. And while I acknowledge that the challenge of these foundational skills is considerable, I would argue that failure to attend to the agency and developing identities of our writers means that our teaching (and by extension, the growth of writers) will be limited. 

Something that fascinates me, that I wish we talked about more in buildings: What are the ways I can let writers know that I SEE them, that I understand and appreciate all that they are bringing to the page and the process? How might my feedback serve as a mirror, reflecting back to writers a clear image of who they are, of what is important to them, of evidence of their growth? 

My best strategy is to study where it is working, where I see evidence of agency and motivation, persistence and energy. I study both my students and my own writing life for clues, for ways to grow these qualities in other writers. 

This past week, for example, one of my kindergartners shared the beginning of his latest book. Even via zoom, this writer lit up when he saw the reaction of the small group to the title of his piece: Spiff in Space. (Seriously, how awesome is that title??) All three of us leaned in, eyes wide. I laughed out loud. He giggled to himself, clearly delighted. 

As he began to read and show the pages of his book, I realized that Spiff was in fact a Lego astronaut, and the pictures in this book were all photographs of a Lego world he had built. The story being written had first been acted out through play. 

This writer had applied a strategy from our how-to writing unit—taking photos to illustrate steps in a process so that a writer can say more—to his fiction writing. He leveraged an activity he loves—imaginative play with Legos—into a tool for storytelling. He was only three pages in with the writing, but the story unfolded via photos for many pages to come. 

In that moment, I was overcome with the joyfulness of this writer’s book and his process. I can’t remember exactly what I said, but I know it had nothing to do with stretching out sounds or planning his writing with lines. This writer found a way to bring HIMSELF to the page. He used the language of play, the counting down that happens in living rooms before the rocket takes off to catapult us all into the story. In those first three pages, he crafted a beginning sure to hook every kindergartner in our class. With his creative approach to illustrations, he gave us a window into the world he had built, the adventure ahead. It was unanimous: we couldn’t wait to hear more! 

It is powerful for a child to evoke such a reaction from an adult and from peers. This is the kind of feedback that inspires a writer to keep writing. He had us on the edge of our seats, and he could see it.

This is the kind of feedback that helps a writer to develop agency: Look what I can DO with my writing! Look what writing can be FOR! Look how writing CONNECTS us. 

This kindergartner knows he is a writer. (And I know he is all in.)

In a similar way, my experience with feedback in my MFA program is teaching me parallel lessons. When my advisor reacts in the margins to specific lines in the text, it affirms my intentions. Sometimes, I’m surprised, and I go back in to understand their reaction. When my advisor asks questions, I can tell that they are genuinely prompting a conversation, writer-to-writer. Through the back and forth of sharing, reflection, and feedback, I am strengthening my own identity as a writer. I can see my own strengths and needs more clearly, and I am determined to grow. 

I believe writers of all ages deserve to feel the same way.

Amy Ellerman View All

Reader, writer, and instructional coach. Always thinking. Collaborating to innovate the learning experience for students and educators.

8 thoughts on “Joy and Agency: An Origin Story Leave a comment

  1. Amy, this is inspiring writing. So often I think, coach, and talk about agency. I ask folks to step away from editing and focus on the process, but you have given these ideas wings. It is hard work to write, whomever the writer is. Thank you for this inspiration I Willemstad be sharing this widely.

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  2. I think it’s incredible how you’re taking what you’re learning about writing and feedback from your MFA and translating it into teaching Kindergarteners this year. They’re so fortunate to have a teacher who SEES them. (Isabelle’s Kindergarten teacher truly saw her. She understood her in every way. As a parent, there was no greater gift.)

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    • Thank you, Stacey. The parent perspective on this could be a whole other post–thank you for bringing that up! With family members within earshot of all our teaching, it’s such a great opportunity to both build trust by demonstrating that we see kids (so important) while also modeling the kind of feedback that helps kids feel seen. I know many parents who aren’t sure what kind of feedback to offer, and the default (coming from the best of intentions) becomes correcting spelling and conventions.

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  3. This post has me on the edge of my seat. In some ways, it makes me feel seen too. I am teaching virtually (first graders) and coaching, and I’m worried that my writing instruction is not enough. I find it hard to teach writing through Zoom. I miss pulling up next to kids to hear their process, I miss the ability to look over a writer’s shoulder and give some quick “on the run” feedback. I’m not sure the writing is where it should be at this time of the year. But you have me believing again. Believing that what’s important is to see our young writers, to make them feel seen, and to help them develop identities, confidence, and agency. I am going to go back in with this as my focus. I know this is what is most important. Thank you!

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    • Your comment totally made my day! (Talk about feedback that reinforces a desire to write!) You and I are definitely having parallel experiences and struggles this year. It makes such a difference to connect with others as we figure our way through remote instruction. Zoom instruction is so hard. It does help me to keep my eye on what will be most important big picture over time–and that’s how kids see themselves as writers and learners.

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