lessons learned from students · poetry · reluctant writers · writer identity

The Power of Writing Identity

It’s March, which, as we all know, means it’s time for the Slice of Life Story Challenge. In honor of the power of story, my topical post this month will be in story form.

I was in a fifth grade classroom in February during writing workshop, and a student flagged me down, eager to share her work. Now this is a student who (historically), I have been much more likely to encounter reading on the sly than writing during workshop. 

A typical conference goes something like this: 

I sit down beside her, pretending not to notice the book in her lap, half hidden by the desk. “Hi, Jordan (not her real name). How’s it going? What are you working on as a writer today?” 

Jordan will sigh, close the book, and respond with some version of, “Well, what we’re supposed to be doing is. . .” 

We will talk about what she’s thinking and what she might do next, but from her point of view, this is all theoretical. She has no intention of actually doing the writing she is discussing. There is a 99% likelihood of her going right back to her book as soon as I walk away. 

Ever since kindergarten, Jordan has been not just reluctant but resistant to writing. She is a highly capable student—gifted in many ways—who has flat out refused to write. For years. At times, this has led to full-on meltdowns. 

Every teacher she has had since kindergarten has tried to support her in this area. Without getting into the details, I think it’s safe to say that they’ve tried everything. 

But no dice. Jordan has shown zero interest in writing. 

So on this day in fifth grade, when Jordan was actively seeking out an audience for her writing, I was thrilled (and unsure what to expect). 

The class was engaged in a poetry unit, and Jordan had several poems written across multiple pages in Book Creator, where kids were publishing their personal anthologies. 

The poems were stunning. Her imagery was so specific and precise and completely her.

She began to explain in animated fashion how she was thinking about the way that objects fly toward the windshield of a moving car but swoop up and along the face of it rather than colliding.

I was overwhelmed by what I understood in that moment about how her mind works, based on what was on the page (and the expression on her face). 

“Jordan,” I said, “you see the world with the eyes of a poet.” 

“I know,” she said, without missing a beat. “I’m a writer now.” 

Neither Jordan nor her teacher have been able to pin down and identify exactly what it was that flipped the switch from “not a writer” to “writer” for her. (Believe me, I asked!)

I do think there is something magic about poetry and it’s ability to coax writers to take risks. . . and I KNOW this particular teacher has worked double time to create a community where it’s safe to stretch, even if she won’t take the credit for it.

But ever since that poetry unit, Jordan has been willing to engage in writing workshop. She has been willing to write in other forms and genres. She really does see herself as a writer.

I share this story today because it reminds me of the power of writing identity. Jordan reminds me that unlocking this identity is not always a simple or straightforward process. I believe that all kids deserve to see themselves as writers, and while I would love to think that there is a foolproof recipe for making this happen, sometimes it happens on its own time—or with just the right nudge from just the right fellow writer/teacher.

13 thoughts on “The Power of Writing Identity

  1. I love this encouraging post. We all need to find our identities as writers. More and more, I’m writing about things in my past. Digging up memories, like a historian of my own life. It’s important to let our students have exposure and experiences with multiple writing styles. The hope is that our students will all find that writing spark!

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  2. I am a firm believer in the power of poetry to release the inner writer. I’ve seen it happen again and again in my own classroom. This student found her niche and it gave her confidence to spread her wings. I’m sure a gifted, compassionate teacher was the wind beneath her wings.

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