We are excited to kick off our Summer Blogstitute series with a post by Mark Overmeyer, author of When Writing Workshop Isn’t Working and What Student Writing Teaches Us and the DVD on conferring How Can I Support You? Mark has written many times for the Stenhouse blog and in this post he explores how the language we use in writing workshop turns an assignment into a treasured opportunity to write, and a student into a writer.
Be sure to leave your comments and questions! Three lucky commenters during the blogstitute will receive a package of five books of their choice. You can also receive 20% off plus free shipping on all books and videos by blogstitute authors.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Writing
Summer: a time to reflect on our teaching practices, a time to read more and write more for us, not just for our students.
When I think of summer, I often think about the many times I have joined writing groups, either through the Denver Writing Project, the Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop (also here in Denver), or the summer I went to Port Townsend, Washington, to spend a week learning from Mark Doty, my favorite poet.”
All of these experiences have shaped me as a writer and as a teacher of writing, and in particular they strike me as places where so much talk about writing happens. When I first started writing and teaching writing, I never thought about the role that talk plays in our writing lives. Now I think about talk all the time when I think of writing.
So, what do we talk about when we talk about writing?
Here are just a few possibilities.
We talk about the work a writer is doing.
I have no idea if Mark Doty has read Carol Dweck’s book Mindset, but it sure seems as if he has. Dweck’s research on motivation shows that the more we equate success with being “good” or “smart,” the more we shut down motivation and progress. So, as a writing teacher, I have to be careful. Instead of saying “You are such a good writer!” I might say, “You are doing the work of a writer who really wants to convince your mom to buy you a dog.” In the writing workshop I attended with Mark Doty, he often talked about the “work” of a poem as something almost separate from the writer. He would say, “This poem works right here because . . .” or, “It seems as if the poem is concerned with helping the reader understand that…”
I have tried this technique with many students since my experience in Mark’s workshop, and I have had success with them all the way down to the primary grades. Recently, I talked to second-grader Amina about an opinion piece she wrote during a unit on being a food critic:
Me: What have you been working on, Amina?
Amina: My piece about eating a goldfish cracker.
Me: Great. Can you read it to me?
Amina: In my opinion the goldfish made me feel wonderful. The goldfish made me feel like hitting a piñata! It’s very cheesy and it made me make up a goldfish dance.
Me: Amina, you worked hard as a writer today to make sure you didn’t just write: “It is delicious. I like it.” That’s exactly what we discussed—when we become food critics, we need to think like food critics, taste food like food critics, and write like food critics. That’s exactly what you did today. What do you plan to do next as a writer?
Amina: I am going to write about the tortilla chip.
Me: Okay—I hope it is as good as the goldfish cracker!
I am still working to make this kind of exchange sound more natural, but I can honestly say that students beam when I frame my talk in the context of doing the work of a writer. When the talk is framed around work, the writer can actually do something to get better, or to continue on the same successful path.
We talk about writers who are doing similar work.
When we study mentor texts and professional authors during a writing workshop, teachers have powerful opportunities to build confidence during conferences.
When I conferred with Aiden recently about his expert book on football, I was able to say, “You are doing the work of Gail Gibbons. You have diagrams of a football field on this page, and you include a lot of information in a ‘how-to’ format. This is what Gail Gibbons does—she thinks about how to teach us about something and then she makes sure the paper matches what she wants to teach.”
The expert book that Aiden completed during this study represented his best writing to date. He was motivated to keep working because he didn’t see this writing opportunity as an “assignment.”
Comparing student writing to the work of professional writers positions our instruction in the real world—what Katie Wood Ray calls “true writing” in her book Study Driven. Our students can create identities as writers at a very young age if we ask them to do what real writers actually do.
We talk about Skittles and Milo.
Two years ago, Madison wrote an essay titled “Skittles Is a Troublemaker” during the time I spent with her third-grade class. It is a piece I have never forgotten, and not just because Madison taught me that third graders can indeed write essays full of voice and passion and energy. She also taught me that the content of our pieces can help us make connections with writers. So when I say “We talk about Skittles,” what I really mean is that we talk about the content of our work.
When I confer with Barron about how much he loves Lakeside, a local amusement park, I learn about his favorite rides at the same time I learn about him as a writer. When I listen to Keoni share her story about the time she fell and banged her head on the concrete, I can picture her worried father’s face while I am learning about Keoni’s ability to craft a narrative.
I often write about my cat, Milo, when I work with students, or about walking my friend’s dog, Finn. Months may go by and I will be walking down the hall at a school, and a student will say “How’s Milo?” or “Have you seen Finn lately?”
This year, I had the opportunity to work again with Madison, who is now in fifth grade.
Me: How is Skittles?
Madison: He died.
Me: I am so sorry! Did you get another ferret?
Madison: No! He was so bad, we were worried about getting another ferret. Now we have a dog.
And, of course, I remembered how much trouble Skittles caused: chewing computer wires, ripping up socks and blankets, and trying to run away from home. I told Madison I feel like Skittles is almost famous because I talk about him in the context of the essay she wrote when I tell teachers about the possibilities essay writing can provide. I thanked her for her writing, and for sharing her thoughts about Skittles. She smiled. “How’s Milo?” she asked.
I wish for you a summer full of memories that can first be written, and then shared with your friends, family members, workshop members, and students. And I hope you have many opportunities to talk about writing.
50 comments June 25th, 2012