It’s summer and that means Mama Nawal plods around the house during the day discovering bits and pieces of kid creations. Life is a tad bit slower, without the bustle of the school year schedule with four children.
There are journals with invisible ink, complete with lock and key. Eliana turned ten and I helped her practice opening the tiny lock on the notebook her Khaleh sent as a gift.
There are flip books with little drawings, arguing characters and fart jokes, with plenty of BAM, WHAMs and POWs peppered throughout. Ehsan envisions superhero duels.
And then there’s Ezzy’s drawings of school busses and cartoonish cats, rocket ships or people – with a few feeling words like MAD and HAPPY labeled too.
These kids and their secret writing lives reveal a desire for expression that transcends teacher directive. They write because they want to; they choose precisely why and when. As classroom educators, we don’t often have the liberty of giving students completely free reign, but their motivations- not fueled by any literacy-coach mama move on my part- signals an innate desire to compose.
WHEN DOES WRITING FEEL RIGHT?
When I’m designing professional learning experiences for teachers, I often reset by asking them to mull over times when writing felt right. When did it feel cathartic? When did writing have purpose? When did writing fuel your desire to share more, or seek support, or learn something new?
More often than not, the collaborative lists include some combination of the following when:
- I could choose my topic
- Peers gave me meaningful feedback
- I shared with a wider audience
- I picked the form or genre of expression
- I accomplished something I needed to communicate
- Nobody else saw it but me; I wasn’t embarrassed to write my true feelings
- I read examples of writing I appreciated
- Someone helped me make my writing better
- My writing led me to new discoveries
Holding these truths at the center helps me remember what is important. When writers feel empowered to write for their own personal catharsis, it matters. When writers know they will have the opportunity to strengthen their writing alongside peers, it matters. When writers have greater degrees of choice around topic and genre, it matters. And when, at times, there’s a wider audience for writing, beyond classroom walls or the teacher’s eyes alone, there is often deeper motivation.
TEXTS THAT SPRINGBOARD CATHARTIC WRITING
When I was a child I began writing journals when I was angry or confused about the world around me. It was my way of making sense of the bullies in school, the push and pull of being a first generation immigrant’s daughter as I navigated the rules of my family with dissimilar traditions of my peers. Those stacks and stacks of journals now live in a crate in my aunt’s basement in Pittsburgh.
While every child won’t find friendship on the blank page, writing teachers can craft the space to allow it.
Mentors in and out of the classroom guide our writing. They show us what’s possible, inspire us, and excite us about what creations we can compose. Here are several texts that I’ve used in classrooms to springboard cathartic writing, selected to cultivate authentic writing lives in our students as we lay the groundwork for workshop early in the year.
In My Heart: A Book of Feelings by Jo Witek
Ruby Finds a Worry by Tom Percival
Bravo Anjali by Sheetal Sheth
My Heart by Corinna Lukyen
Way Past Jealous by Hallee Adelman
La Catrina – Emotions – Emociones by Patty Rodriguez
Grumpy Monkey by Suzanne Lang
Visiting Feelings by Lauren Rubenstein
These picture books support the idea that writers can feel a wide range of emotions and write about them as part of the classroom experience. Students need not always write in a specific genre towards a goal of a final polished piece but instead, educators might offer once-weekly space for students to journal about their emotions. I tuck this into independent work options on Wednesdays or Fridays while I circulate individually to confer with writers who are working on the genre process piece.
IN PURSUIT OF BALANCE
I know, as classroom teachers, we can’t do it all. When I talk about the balanced literacy framework, I draw parallels between healthy eating: I don’t expect my children to eat all the right fruits and vegetables each and every day (Some days they eat fried food; some days they might have too much dessert). But are we ensuring our children have a balanced diet- and a holistic approach to writing- across a week, a month? Are students having ample opportunities to choose their mode of expression, write for greater audiences or solely for themselves, select their topics of interest, partner with peers, and receive meaningful feedback from their teachers over time? As we move into a new school year, let’s think across the year holistically.
Let’s make writing feel right.
Note: for your adult hearts, you might be inspired by writer Kaveh Akbar’s drawings of poems, which depict poetic illustrations of his feelings for his most recent work, Pilgrim Bell. How might we incorporate visual storytelling into our classrooms, too?
Nawal is an educator, literacy consultant and writer based out of Chicago, IL. Nawal worked as a classroom teacher, literacy coach and curriculum developer in Brooklyn and Chicago before launching NQC Literacy in 2014. She and her team support schools and districts by facilitating professional development and coaching around a holistic, balanced approach to literacy instruction: always looking through lenses of cultural-sustainability, inclusion and equity.
Nawal earned a Bachelor of English from the University of Michigan, a Master of Teaching from Brooklyn College, and a Master of Journalism from Syracuse University’s Newhouse School. She won a New Jersey Press Association Award for her international reporting and transitioned into education as a New York City Teaching Fellow. She is the proud daughter of immigrants and her role as a mother to four multiethnic, multilingual kids shapes her approach as an educator. You can find Nawal in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood or on Twitter at @NQCLiteracy.