Blogstitute 2017: Writing that matters

July 25th, 2017

In today’s Blogstitute post, Vicki Meigs-Kahlenbert, author of The Author’s Apprentice, argues for writing instruction and writing assignments that really matter, that make students remember the high of getting published, of having their voice out in the world. They will not remember a grade, but they will remember setting a high goal and being encouraged to attain it. 

Enough Muck Shuckin’; Let’s Make It Matter
Vicki Meigs-Kahlenberg

I spent the past week of my life with five teenagers and an amazing co-leader named Bill, shoveling muck and debris and pumping out black water from under the subfloor in a tired, old home in Appalachia. And each day that it rained, it felt like Groundhog Day all over again, removing more muck and water one five-gallon bucket at a time.

This year, instead of escaping to the beach the week after school was out, my family and I decided to go on a mission trip. My two high school–aged children, my husband, and I teamed up with the Appalachia Service Project (ASP) to help rebuild the homes and lives of those living in poverty in the Appalachian Mountains.

Our mission site took us only three-and-a-half hours west of our home (near Raleigh, North Carolina), but Johnson County, Tennessee, felt worlds away.  Nestled deep in the beautiful Appalachian Mountains are hundreds of families living in poverty—many with homes that lack proper bathrooms and plumbing, most in desperate need of serious repair to simply make them safe to live in. Our job was to come in to make these homes livable again and ready to withstand the brutal mountain winter.

This experience was both rewarding and humbling in so many ways. It made me think a lot about human nature and motivation both in the classroom and out in the world.

The Author's ApprenticeWhen my crew arrived to our work site, we could see that the entire rear of the house was “sinking.” There had been several additions built on to the back throughout the years by the homeowners, and all the eaves from all the different rooflines converged at one low point in the very middle of the rear of the house. (I can’t help thinking that middle school is a lot like that for some kids—years of lessons not learned, expectations not met, all converging in this one place in time, making them feel like they are falling further behind.)

My Dream Team of teenagers was super-pumped to get in the back room with sledgehammers and Sawzalls to start the demolition. It took a while to get through the layers of flooring, but once that first piece of subfloor came out, the world stopped.

Each one of us choked in a breath as the fumes emerged. Bravely, we covered our mouths and noses and peeked in for a closer look. The cinderblock foundation was filled with water. And it was black. Upon closer inspection, we could see that it filled the crawl space the entire length of the house. And those beams that we were planning to “sister” for safety and support were so rotted that they crumbled in our hands—many no longer attached to the foundation at all.

Maybe it was the naïveté of the youth who were with us that made us act, but these kids knew we had to do something. They all knew that their actions at that moment mattered, and they acted on that instinct. Period.

I know many of these teens from my own kids’ youth group. Although they are all fantastic teenage specimens—smart, funny, well-intentioned, I’m not sure that any of them under normal circumstances would agree to standing in sewage for days on end. They all balk at chores around the house, and roll their eyes and sigh when they are asked to do things they’d rather not do. But last week they powered on through the rain and stench because what they were doing mattered to this family, and it ultimately mattered to them.

They weren’t being evaluated on the quality of their work, yet it was excellent. They weren’t being rated on their attitudes or tone, yet they were always positive. These kids were an inspiration to me, to Bill, and to the family whose home we repaired. The work they did last week made a difference out in the world.  It’s an experience that we will all carry with us for a long time to come.

Out in the world and in our classrooms, when kids have the opportunity to do something that matters to them beyond a test score or an evaluation, they will rise up and not only meet your expectation; they will exceed it.

It is our job to figure out how to make that happen in our classrooms each year.

Every morning last week, we got up, rain or shine. We’d begin with an inspirational morning huddle, and then pile into the work van with Bring Em Out, by T. I., thumping through the speakers and smiles on our faces. It wasn’t because we were excited to be shoveling that muck; it was because what we were doing served a greater purpose. We only had one week, but in that one week, our goal was to strengthen another family’s foundation from the inside out.

It occurred to me that we should think of our teaching the same way. The work that we do with our students at any level is foundational. In order to make the greatest impact in the one year that we have with our students, we need to show them that the work they are doing matters. We need to prove to our students that they matter by raising the bar and setting high expectations—for all students, not just the advanced learners. We need to push them to stretch just beyond what they believe is possible.

Publication can do this for our students in the language arts classroom. Many of my students have struggled in this content area in the younger grades, so writing to be published seems like the craziest idea ever. It is incredible what they can do when they put their minds to it.

For years, I have required all of my students, whether they are labeled, average, academically gifted, or learning support, to submit a minimum of two pieces of their school writing for authentic, real-world publication. In their written assignments, I encourage them to focus on the things that matter to them in their own lives—their own stories and memories and the issues that they are passionate about. This has made a huge impact on every student across the board in terms of their effort, their motivation, and the quality of all their writing assignments throughout the year.

Real-world, editor-reviewed and -selected publication gives students the opportunity to get their voices out in the world. It provides motivation that goes beyond a grade, giving them an authentic reason to read and to write. It levels the playing field for writers of all abilities, and it offers all students the opportunity to give back to the writing world—to be part of it—to continue the cycle so that future writers can find inspiration for their own writing. That confidence never goes away.

Over the years, I have discovered that there is a place to publish nearly every kind of writing that I already do in my classroom. I do a lot of freewriting with my students, but even when we are working on what I consider “school writing,” such as book reviews, personal narratives, poetry, arguments, and essays, my students always have opportunities to share their work outside the classroom. Writing with the prospect of publication raises the bar on the quality of work for every assignment.

Some of my favorite publication opportunities include A Celebration of Poets, NPR’s This I Believe Essay Contest, Teen Ink, and our local newspaper.

Truth is, none of my students remembers their test scores from their seventh- or eighth-grade years, or any of the rest of the muck we trudged through together as a class, but every one of them remembers seeing their words in print for the first time, and the pride that came with authentic publication.

[For more information about the Appalachia Service Project, please visit www.asphome.org]

Entry Filed under: Blogstitute

6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Lisa C  |  July 25th, 2017 at 9:46 am

    I love your story! The foundation, in houses and schooling, really is the key. I keep reminding myself of that. There’s a pressure to move kids too fast, I think, and their foundation suffers.

  • 2. Tracy  |  July 26th, 2017 at 8:34 am

    What a truly inspirational post! Thank you for sharing your experience. I’ll definitely be looking into ways I can publish my students’ science writing over the next year. And I’ll be checking out ASP for sure!

  • 3. Nancie  |  July 26th, 2017 at 11:39 pm

    Wonderful post! .. and so true! Thank you for sharing with us !

  • 4. Jennifer Laffin  |  July 27th, 2017 at 6:46 am

    I found myself nodding my head over and over as I read your words. You picked such a great story to illustrate your point of the effort we show when we care about the outcome. I’d like to share another option for publishing student writers, especially for younger students, The Cartonera Project. I wrote about it here: https://schoolleadersnow.weareteachers.com/school-wide-writing-cartonera-project/#.WXnRzbFOmf0. I’d love to know your thoughts!

  • 5. Patsy Marrs Wilson  |  July 31st, 2017 at 10:07 am

    Thank you for this excellent writing. As a retired teacher and sometime writer I could relate to your inspirational sharing of the adventure with your family and time of service to others. I suddenly wanted to be back in the classroom encouraging writing with the possibility of being published. Our son and grandson shared your mission trip and truly were blessed too. So glad YOU are published!!

  • 6. Lisa Flanagan  |  August 2nd, 2017 at 9:30 pm

    Great post! I just recently had a conversation with a patient in my office. When her daughter was in your school, she didn’t have you as a teacher and was very disappointed, as she heard great things about you. All her friends were on your team & had a blast writing their books. You were such an inspiration to so many kids!

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