Why when I write does it feel that words should fall on the page linearly, from idea to draft to revision to editing and fin? It isn’t that clean of a process.
Why do we stifle writing in schools at times, forcing students to compose single way narratives, fill-in-the-blank nonfiction, or spoon-fed opinion writing?
Outside classroom walls, writing isn’t composed one way. I know this as a lover of literature, as a former journalist, as a friend of writers. And yet, as an educator, I still sometimes misrepresent for kids the order of operations, or portray a limited view of what writing really can be: exploratory. Writing is following your questions and curiosities; knowing yourself better and sharing your truth.
To many of our kids, writing means filling in a graphic organizer. Though they tell incredible stories orally at the kitchen table or when they take walks- imaginative, creative, complex- their writing on paper in school is diluted to a structured simplicity easily digested by surveying eyes, directly aligned to a checklist. Why is that?
KID LIT CREATORS
Desperate to explore these ideas further, I talked with authors Jasmine Warga and Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, whose gorgeous books I often use as mentors in classrooms. They underscored the same sentiment- the need to teach the writing process in more of an organic way.
“The scaffolding made me feel closed in,” Jasmine said, looking back on school days in Ohio where she grew up. “While I recognize that it can be a launchpad for other kids, I wonder if there’s a way to make writing prompts feel more inclusive? I want that structure to be optional. For my own kids too.”
Olugbemisola, as a child, felt similarly, and she bucked the requirements.
“I was exposed to a lot of those formulas, but because I was so embedded in my reading for pleasure, I just didn’t do that,” she explained. “In school visits I used to get the question ‘Miss, am I allowed to X,Y,Z and my initial reaction is of course! Why don’t you think you’re allowed to?”
Jasmine remembers writing feeling oppressive in school, likening writing to a factory production.
“Writing felt so prescriptive. I go through these processes as a professional writer, where I draft and draft and revise and revise and revise,” Jasmine told me. “There’s a misunderstanding that drafting is done after one single step. But sometimes we have to go back to ideas or drafting, and not be obsessed with that rush to the finish.”
CHASING IDEAS WHEREVER THEY CARRY US
Olugbemisola doodles. She jots a piece of dialogue, adds arrows and highlights. She walks around outside and imagines her characters; she sketches scenes. She highlights and revisits.
“It might not seem like working but it is such an important part of getting myself into a story before writing anything down,” she said. “It gives me an opportunity to explore. So much about writing is about following your curiosity and following your questions.”
It is also about agency and choice throughout the process, from start to finish and back again. Jasmine recalled a sixth grade fantasy story she was writing about elves in a desert and remembers getting “cut off” because it was time for the class as a whole to move on.
“The choice was always made by the writing teacher; when the bell went off, that’s when we revise,” Jasmine said. “If we trust our kids on when they feel ready, that puts teacher in the role of a guider instead of a supervisor checking what part of the assembly line you’re on.”
And if kids worry mostly about making that perfect final end product, they are crippled in the process, never quite actualizing the story they want to tell or exploring an idea to dig around.
“It’s freeing [to doodle and sketch] and it takes me and students further away from the idea that this writing is evaluated. This is something that I can do wrong. And I think that freezes kids so much up with writing. They think, ‘There’s a way to do this wrong, or I have to worry about things that might be part of a final editing or polishing process at the beginning,’” Olugbemisola said.
Instead, we should lean into sharing with students the true why we write:
Idea building. Determining what story we want to tell. Following questions we have and marinating in that curiosity.
“You don’t have to think of it in terms of a product but more like an ongoing conversation with a partner and yourself. This is your opportunity to explore the way I think, the ideas I have, and get to know them a little better, Olugbemisola said.
Asking kids to follow questions as part of the brainstorming and pre-drafting process is part of Olugbemisola’s methodology.
“What’s a story you want to tell? What do you think you really mean? Why do you think this stayed with you? Why do you think this is important? Why would you think this is important for someone to know about you? If I didn’t know you at all, what might be the most important thing I should know? I want a young writer to think about the story as opposed to the assignment and to feel comfortable in it,” Olugbemisola said.
Jasmine added: “Every book I write, I’m asking readers to come think through my questions with me.”
So as we move forward this season, concluding a challenging 2021, I aim to respect the messy writing process for myself. I will tell our students over and over that getting your ideas out doesn’t have to look one way; that they can move forward and backward and around again. They can toss out ideas and start anew. And while I do that, I’ll hold Jasmine and Olugbemisola’s thoughts close: as educators, let’s not stifle our students’ natural creativity with ‘supposed to’s.’ There’s no wrong way. The final product need not look the way we initially imagined.
“Let’s not be obsessed with the end product so much that we forget to teach kids to enjoy the act of creating things,” Jasmine said, “ Writing is more of a living and breathing thing.”