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What Our Student Writers Need From School

This guest post is from my Collaboratory colleague, Jennifer Henderson, who shares an experience with a "giant" and touches on an issue I'm becoming increasingly pasionate about--the role of creative writing in today's English Language Arts clasroom. A fellow English teacher, Jenn has been teaching in Aurora, Colorado for 19 years. From 4th grade to 10th grade, she's been loving every minute of her time with her students. Currently, she teaches 10th grade Language Arts at Rangeview High School and serves as half of Rangeview's Teacher Partner team. She is a virtual community organizer for CTQ-Colorado and is a group leader in the Teacher Leadership Initiative (TLI). ~Ariel

On a very early Saturday morning I sit here at a local university, listening to the genius of Jovan Mays.  Jovan, a local slam poet celebrity and Aurora Poet Lauriat, is leading a young writer’s workshop for kids in 4th – 12th grade, sponsored by the Denver Writing Project.  The kids have come from all over Denver, encouraged by a teacher, parent or friend.

Two things are going through my mind right now.

One, I want my students to grow up to be like Jovan.  I want them to put their ideas and passions and lives into words.  I want them to use the words “writer” and “poet” when they describe their strengths, and when they tell others who they are.

The second thing going through my mind is the fact that when I ask the kids in this workshop where they write, where they get time to be creative and where they get time to explore a writer’s life, the answer is never “School.”  The answer is never “In my English class.”

When Jovan gives the kids an 8 word prompt, “What would I say to you if…”, their heads are immediately bent over their notebooks, pens scratching fiercely on paper, trying to get every thought and idea down before they hear the words “30 seconds left!”  They don’t look up or around, they don’t come up for air, they are engrossed.  As writers.

So naturally I begin to look at my own classroom and my own students.  I think about the essay they just spent 90 minutes writing last week.  I think about the literary analysis paper they are going to write this quarter.  I know these things are important…sort of. 

But I also know it’s more important for my kids to believe they are writers.  To trust that they have the skills and strengths they need to write anything – a college essay, a standardized test response, a slam poem. 

So when I go back to my classroom, I decide to make a change.  Not a big change – my kids are already choosing topics and following their creative ideas.  But I feel like I have been treating the creative writing we do as “back-up” work – the kind of thing that only gets attention when everything else is done.  I have been sending the message that this work is not important  But my students’  ideas are important, and if I’m going to help them realize the great writers that live inside their hearts, then these poems, these stories, these passions put to paper have to be valued enough to be an integral and essential part of our writing day.


 

12 Comments

Jessica Cuthbertson commented on January 16, 2015 at 2:07pm:

Right On, Write On! :)

Jenn,

As always you inspire me. I'm so happy you guest posted on Ariel's blog as I hope to share it widely with the virtual and physical world :). If every teacher of every writer (P-12 and beyond) adopted this mindset - our world would be filled with confident, capable, flexible writers. 

Keep writing...we educators need to hear and learn from you. And I hope you'll share your students' creative work with us as well. 

You were #RightOn so #WriteOn my friend :).

Jennifer Henderson commented on January 20, 2015 at 12:16pm:

Thanks!

You know you inspired me to get involved and learn with and from the amazing educators in the CTQ!  So thank-you... and I can't wait to continue this reflection around writing with my students.


 

Jozette Martinez commented on January 25, 2015 at 11:46pm:

Absolutely!

Life isn't about the term papers, and the five paragraph essay... I majored in English and was told all throughout high school that I would be writing millions of them, only to discover it happened a handful of times. But the poems, the love songs, the screen plays and analysis of other writing, the stories; that's what it's all about. I commend you for recognizing that THIS KIND OF WRITING IS EQUAL TO IF NOT MORE important to the foundational ways. Teach them the rules of writing, so well, that they then break them beautifully! Bellisima mi hermana!

Jessica Rodriguez Bracey commented on January 16, 2015 at 4:18pm:

Finding That A Great Writer Lives inside every Heart!

Jenn, I love what you said about intergrating student ideas daily into writing, I can feel the passion behind your words. However, how do we support teachers to feel the same, do the same?

I think about myself as a teacher... I didn't even think of myself as a writer until someone came into my classroom (Lit coach) and helped me realize that I too had "A great writer that lived inside my heart!" Without that experience or that coach I don't think I would have ever learned to help my writers do the same.

How powerful would it be if every teacher knew that they were a great writer? How do we support teachers to find their "Great Writer" that lives inside their heart, so that they can support their students to do the same?

Inspired by your greatness!!

Thanks for posting!

Jennifer Henderson commented on January 20, 2015 at 12:24pm:

Heart of a Writer!

Yes!  There are so many benefits of a teacher writing alongside the students - too many to list!  I think it comes down to overcoming a fear...teaching writing becomes a whole new ballgame when it's our own writing that we put in front of the kids.  But how else can we expect them to put their hearts into writing?  Can we really cheer them on, convince them they have a writer's heart and at the same time say that writing is too hard for us?


I would begin by asking teachers to do the writing they are asking of the kids, and then reflecting.  Not on the writing itself, but the experience as a writer?  What is it our kids go through when we ask them to write?  Reflect there first, then use those experiences as writing lessons..."I noticed that I struggled with this.  Who else did?  Let's talk about how to attack that challenge..." Then work up to showing the writing..."Let's look at what I did as a writer...what do you notice?  What are my strengths?  What parts chould I make better?"


It's daunting, but this has actually become one of my favorite parts of teaching writing.  This blog post will actually be a part of a whole week's learning around opinion!

Lori Nazareno commented on January 16, 2015 at 10:21pm:

Meet them

..where they are.

Terrific blog Jenn! I love how you illustrate that when we meet our kids where they are great things happen.

Can't wait to read more from and about you!

Bill Ivey commented on January 17, 2015 at 12:28pm:

Loved this. Thank you!

There are three main components to my Humanities 7 class, and weekly independent writing is one of them. Every week, by Friday, they share a link to their most recent original writing - any topic, any genre. I read everything and give them feedback over the course of the weekend. Every Monday, rather than my reading to them (as I do for every other class during the week), they have the chance to read from their own writing. This year, around half the class goes on a typical morning. When they finish, if they have questions for the class, they ask them and lead the resulting discussions. Among the kids who tell me, when they're older, that they miss Humanities 7, many refer specifically to independent writing. In general, they want both voice and agency, and independent writing is one way I give that to them.

Jennifer Henderson commented on January 20, 2015 at 12:30pm:

Yes!  I think that sharing

Yes!  I think that sharing piece is so important and the kids love it!  Their thinking is important enough to be put in writing and their writing is important enough to be shared...I love how you added the discussion aspect.  If writing is powerful, it will cause action in the reader - thinking, questioning, applying - and your kids get to see this in action and applied to the content of Humanities.  Amazing.  Do they create a blog or something where they keep all their writing?

Tricia Ebner commented on January 19, 2015 at 1:18pm:

Guilty as charged . . .

And I'm with you . . . I need to make a change. The trick is finding the right balance. It doesn't have to be huge. I don't have to reinvent my entire curriculum. But yes--I need to find good, creative ways to embed more of that creative writing in my classes. Thank you for the nudge!

Jennifer Henderson commented on January 20, 2015 at 12:37pm:

Change

I think my first step was just to stop second-guessing myself.  To try to stop that little voice in my head that said that creative or choice writing isn't benefitial.  Maybe my test scores don't shoot up becasue of it, but the student-reflections at the end of the year let me know that this was time well spent :)

Becca commented on January 22, 2015 at 2:37pm:

Literacy

Jenn - How many times have I sat in a class and felt those same feeling. I too want my students to feel fire and passion about something - sometimes anything. Today I'm trying to figure out how to change a culture within my school. One where teachers check persuasive off the list and move to expository... students are feeling uninspired. The don't find value in learning, let alone writing. 

There is a reason kids use social media. For them it is a place to stake that claim on an issue, stand up for what they believe in and shake the world (not always in the best ways). Therefore, it is vital that teachers begin finding ways to empower those voices and guide them. 

Think back to the good old days, when we were in school. Who were the best P.E. teachers? The ones who played the games with us. The ones who danced and threw the ball. Why then is writing, or reading any different? I'm trying to say I agree with you wholeheartedly! And I love your post. 

Sandy Merz commented on January 25, 2015 at 9:16pm:

Refreshing to read this

At my school, we're in the midst of teaching argumentative writing or writing informative text or whatever else can be considered non-fiction that references outside material. That kind of writing can be very creative, but the emphasis is too often proper citations and too little on analysis and creative ideas. This was a refreshing piece to read. Thanks.

 

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