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.


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