Friday, January 21, 2011

Developing, Not Destroying, Great Writers

One of the great things about being an educator is working with so many folks who are focused on learning—the learning of their children, of their students, of the citizens in a community. It is wonderful to talk about the endless possibilities for our students. So I am always excited to participate in the yearly parent meeting discussing Pre-AP and the transition from elementary school to middle school. These parents are very excited but anxious. During this meeting parents are divided into three groups: parents of GT students, parents who need the presentation in Spanish, and parents interested in PreAP. The core directors speak to each parent group about the program that she represents.

Last week after my general description of the class and some questions around the amount of work and the pacing of that work, at least one parent in each group asked a version of the following question: “What should we do if our son/daughter hates to write? I mean REALLY HATES to write!” Every time the question was asked, parents throughout the room began shaking their heads in agreement. As an English teacher, I love talking about literature, but my favorite thing to teach is writing. Yet in each room there were parents agreeing that we had built into children a fear or hatred of writing. We simply cannot have that.

I guess the expression on my face caused parents to throw out excuses: One mother explained that she had been told that boys don’t like to write. Yes, I was perplexed by that also. I have four sons; two of them write on a daily basis, but all four keep a journal. They are avid readers and writers. I know; someone is now thinking, “But both of their parents are English teachers.” Very true. We are. But we don’t teach English at home. We read to and around our children—and now grandchildren. We value all of their writing and share our writing. But they each also had at least one teacher who valued those things.

Gender does not define one’s desire to write. Children are not born to either love or hate writing. They don’t come to the schoolhouse doors at the age of four with their arms folded in protest shouting “I hate to write and will not even try.” Instead, they come to us desperate to read and write. My proof is in the experience. If you have ever seen Matt Glover work with a group of young children, you know how excited they are to write. He introduces students to multiple models and sets them free to write their own books. I have seen a group of pre-kindergarten students work for 45 minutes writing and then sharing their books. Just watching these four-year-old children write with enthusiasm, teaches us all that they value writing. They come to school writers waiting to be guided by us.

So what should we do to develop a great writer rather than create one who fears or hates writing? In Spring Branch we start with an understanding of the writing process. That staff development begins with a three-week writing institute (Abydos—New Jersey Writing Project) in the summer. The continuous development of writing instruction comes from the School Improvement Specialist in the building as well as consultants like Matt Glover, John O’Flahaven, Katie Wood Ray, Heather Latimer and Tom Romano.

What do we know about being an excellent writing instructor?

1. We know that if teachers are going to teach writing well, they must be writers. Each of us should write regularly. We know that our writing should include writing the assignments that we give our students. And we can’t keep our writing to ourselves. To build an environment where writing is valued by everyone, we must share the writing that we do with others. I keep a personal journal, write stories for and about my grandchildren, and fearfully take stabs at short stories. This blog is helping me to remember the difficulty of writing for publication. If I remember the effort that it takes to write well, I won’t trivialize the efforts made by my students.
2. We know that to be a good writer, one must also be an avid reader. Each of us should always be reading something new. It would be wonderful to blend the reading that we do by reading texts that interest us and texts that interest our students. We also need to be certain that we are reading from a variety of genres. Again, we have to help our students hear us talk about the reading that we do. Lately I have been terribly focused on reading young adult literature. I recently finished the National Book Award winner: Mockingbird. This is a story about a girl with Aspergers who has just lost her brother—the person who helped her move through the world. It is very good. It would be great to teach with To Kill a Mockingbird but would fit with anyone who lives life with someone with a handicapping condition.
3. We also know from Peter Johnston’s Choice Words that identity matters. If I create an environment where it is acceptable to refer to one’s self as an author, then the students are more likely to see themselves as authors. It isn’t enough to have an author’s chair sitting alone in the room. We must see ourselves and our students as authors. That means we all use the language of an author. We all understand the writing process and know that there is never one right way to move through that process. We especially understand that the spelling and the comma are not the MOST important things to discuss when one writes; they may be the easiest for a weak writing teacher to point out, but they are not the most important discussions to have. They are also not to be totally ignored; that is why there is a process. I wonder whether our focus on spelling and punctuation is the root to someone’s fear or hatred of writing. Or could it be that we have our students write one time, we mark it up, and return it with THE GRADE? When do we value the attempt? The ideas? The risks taken by the author? When do we guide rather than grade? When do we encourage growth?

While there are many more aspects to being an excellent writing instructor, this is a good place to continue our move to quality writing instruction. What are you reading? What are you writing? What is the writing culture of your classroom, of your school? How are you working to build children, adolescents, adults who love to write and who write very well? Right now, pick up a pencil, a pen, or turn to the keys on your computer and write—what will you do today to build a love of writing into the culture in which you work? What will you do tomorrow and the next day? We don’t need to worry about STAAR. If we are raising writers, this test will be just another opportunity to do what we all love to do—write.

I want our students to leave fifth grade (and twelfth grade) as excited about writing as they were when they came to us in kindergarten. For me that means that we have to continually grow as writers and as writing teachers. My concern does not come from a worry about a score on a test. It comes from concern about raising great writers—writers who can communicate in the workplace, succeed in post-secondary education, share in their personal lives, and even, possibly, publish for the world to enjoy. I want all of our teachers and all of our students to know that they are writers.


  1. Thanks for your thoughts on creating life-long writers! They couldn't be more apropos! I spent the afternoon today with Aimee Buckner at TCTE. Her session was all about growing the writer for life. Her opening line was "We can no longer say that our students won't publish their writing. In our new technology world, our students will [or already have]publish on social networking sites, blogs, wikkis, and more. We must help them to become life-long writers." Writers must explore their thinking, reflect on their life experiences and be willing to weather the 'what if'. Our job is to push [or Nudge, as Matt says] our students to see that they are writers. They can do it! And we can too!

  2. Diane - I love the name of your blog! I'm excited to have a new blog to follow and learn from. (Yes, I ended a sentence with a preposition and I did it on purpose.)Are you using Google Reader to follow your favorite blogs? It collects the post from all the blogs you follow in one spot so you don't have to 'go to' the blogs to keep up. I love it! You are now on my Google Reader list! I have 2 blogs right now and am not ashamed to say I neglect them both. But...I'm working on giving them more attention. You can check out my first attempts at blogging and a really corny blog at and my other blog at Your commitment has inspired me.
    Now...on to your posting...we are excited to have Matt Glover headed to MW next month. The wonder and excitement of our kindergarten authors makes kinder classrooms my favorite place to visit. It is definitely our challenge to preserve those feelings in our students on their pathway to middle and high school.

  3. This is my third try at posting a comment--let's see if my old brain can figure this out.

    In Spring Branch our students all have access to technology that will allow them to publish their writing in a variety of ways. What concerns me is how we guide them in their writing prior to publication. Why do we grade rough drafts? Why aren't we sitting beside the young author and discussing what they have written?

    I learned to transition well in my writing because Muriel Tyson at Lee College sat beside me and read through a 30 page paper with me, pointing to every place that would benefit from a transition. An hour of her time but learning for my lifetime.

  4. Diane, I too was at TCTELA in Galveston this weekend and came back with some great ideas. It's always nice to get new ideas to bring back to our schools. The session with Kelly Gallagher and Jeff Anderson stressed modeled writing even for our older writers at the Secondary level. We know all about modeled writing in Elementary, but it may not be as popular at the Secondary level. They went on to say that assuming students can move to the abstract level of independent writing is the biggest mistake teachers make. It's easy to assign writing, but hard to teach writing.

    Last week before I left for the conference we had Camp SOAR at Sherwood Elementary for our 4th graders. We made writing novel, fun, and engaging through this experience, but more importantly, we all modeled for the students. Every adult wrote along side the students.

    Of course our objective was to prepare the students for TAKS writing, but we achieved something much more. The students LOVE to write now. Every time they see me in the hall they either ask me about my piece, or they want to share something they are writing about. :)


    Here's an idea that is on your blog entry's topic.

  6. Great thoughts!
    Since you’ve jumped into the blog world with both feet, would you be "game" to create a blog for parents that includes rich and helpful information? I think there are portions of what you’ve written that may allay fears they might have or elevate their understanding. –just a thought.