Why I Write with My Students

To celebrate the National Day on Writing and the upcoming month of NaNoWriMo, we invited Vicki Meigs-Kahlenberg, author of The Author’s Apprentice, to share why she writes WITH her students, instead of just assigning writing TO them. Her response is powerful.

Why I Write with My Students
By Vicki Meigs-Kahlenberg

Let’s start here: #WhyIWrite.

I am a writer at heart. I grew up writing stories and poems. As a teenager, I wrote to escape things that were going on in my life—or to celebrate them (or that cute upperclassman in my German class who finally noticed me!). I often wrote it out to make sense of the world and my place in it. I wrote of social justice in my community, and educational equity for the kids who were in lower-level classes than I. Sometimes, though, I simply wrote what was on my heart.

No wonder I became an English teacher.

When I ask my students at the beginning of the year why they write, I generally get one of two responses:
• The high-achieving, teacher-pleasers will comment that it is a necessary form of civilized communication, yada…yada…
• The honest ones answer: “Because the teacher makes me.”

Vicki
For most of my students, writing is not their first love (or their second, or anywhere near the top ten). Although all are fantastically savvy and creative with their memes and eighty-character-or-less “Insta-Snaps,” (my pet name for all of those social media outlets), very few would consider themselves writers. Even if they do send several hundred Snaps a day.

Any published author will tell you that writing–the actual act of pen-to-paper, fingers-to-keyboard writing—is terribly lonely. And that is coming from professional folks who presumably love to write. I can’t fathom how incredibly lonely each independent writing assignment must feel for a student who has never had success in this content area… the one who struggles to get his ideas straight in his head before he can write a single word… the one whose inner editor has already told her that whatever she writes will never be good enough.

I’ve witnessed firsthand, students sitting there, sweating, watching their classmates plow ahead while they continue to get left behind. I am sure that all of you can identify these struggling writers in your own classrooms.

Writing is scary and overwhelming for students who have never had a positive writing experience. They view the teacher as judge and jury, and their classmates as competition.

An African proverb says, “It takes a village to raise a child.” In this age of assessment, have we forgotten that it also takes a community to develop a writer?

That’s #WhyIWriteWithMyStudents.

As of the day I wrote this post, I found that the above is not an actual trending hashtag. (Although, I think it should be.) Of course, #WhyIWrite is the hashtag that accompanies the National Day on Writing on October 20 (NDOW). What if we used this day to commit to developing our young writers by writing with them, as opposed to assigning writing to them?

The beautiful thing about the timing of NDOW is that with a bit of preparation, it can serve as the perfect springboard from a day on writing to a month of writing, together.

I am talking about National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). If you have not done NaNoWriMo with a class yet, you are missing out on an incredible opportunity to build your own fierce, “I’ve-got-your-back” community of writers for November and beyond. I have yet to discover anything as powerful for helping all students rise with the tide, and build English class camaraderie. Sharing this common writing experience by participating in NaNoWriMo’s Young Writer’s Program (www.ywp.nanowrimo.org) is a life-changing, writing-affirming experience for students and teachers alike. Taking the time on October 20th to introduce your class to this epic challenge is a perfect way to honor our students and National Day on Writing.

Throughout the month of November, we join together in word-sprints to build fluency of thought and writing. We share our favorite written lines or passages each week, to show how our inner muses are naturally incorporating the grammar, writer’s crafts and figures of speech that we learned in class. We show our vulnerability and encourage each other in the classroom and online at the end of week two, when we all struggle with writer’s block because none of our characters wants to cooperate with the story arcs we had in mind. We celebrate word-count milestones and offer support and suggestions for those who have petered out.

Doing this together makes us all stronger—as writers, and as a genuine community of learners.

While a specific word count is a personal goal, we strive as a class to meet milestones. Whether a student’s ten percent milestone is 500 or 5,000 words, students of all ability levels celebrate these accomplishments together. For this month, all writers are encouraged to “turn off their inner editors” and write unapologetically without fear of red correction marks. By simply sharing a common space and writing together, all students develop confidence and fluency in writing and thought that transfers seamlessly into future assignments and other content areas.

It is already mid-October, but it is not too late. Here are two options for helping you develop that prized writing community this fall:
Option 1 (the Writing Rebel’s approach): Abandon your curriculum for the month, and dive head first into this community of writers thing! The Young Writer’s Program of National Novel Writing Month has done a fantastic job putting together comprehensive workbooks that students can print or complete online. They have listed all of the Common Core connections, so you can easily justify this madness to your supervisors.

Option 2 (the Sensible Writing-Teacher-Who-Has-A-Ton-of-Material-to-Cover approach): Look at your curriculum. Then, take a look at the NaNoWriMo Workbook for your grade level. Think about places where the two naturally align. Are you planning to, or have you already studied characterization, conflict or plot structure? NaNoWriMo made it easy to bridge your curriculum with their well-designed lesson plans. When you are studying mood and tone, denotation and connotation, and even irony and symbolism, or imagery and figures of speech, it is more impactful when your reading and analysis lessons are incorporated into their writing. (For more explicit lessons for intertwining your existing curricula with National Novel Writing Month, check out The Author’s Apprentice.)

All students deserve to have a positive experience before they move on to the next grade. Every child needs to know what it feels like to write through something with their classmates, so that they can appreciate what it feels like to be on the other side of it, together. When we intentionally design our curriculum based on common experiences, rather than common assessments, everyone succeeds.

The top ten reasons #WhyIWriteWithMyStudents:
10. to show vulnerability
9. to share a bit of myself
8. to share my passion
7. to show that it is healthy, normal, & part of the process to make mistakes
6. to learn about my students, their process and their world
5. to show how much I value my students and the assignments I ask them to complete
4. because 30 brains are better than one
3. because writing can be lonely if you are alone
2. to build a true community of writers
1. to build a community of learners who help each other succeed in all things

Who’s ready to accept the challenge? Let’s get this hashtag trending: #WhyIWriteWithMyStudents

4 comments October 17th, 2017

Get your students writing for NaNoWriMo

Today’s guest post by Vicki Meigs-Kahlenberg might sound a bit ambitious — even crazy: write an entire novel with your students during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). But Vicki, author of the new book The Author’s Apprentice, has some practical advice as you gear up for this challenging, rewarding, and possibly life-changing writing exercise with your students. Good luck and let us know how it’s going in your classroom!

Get your students writing for NaNoWriMo
Vicki Meigs-Kahlenberg

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October is one of my favorite times of the year. I love the sweater-weather, the changing leaves, and the pumpkin spice everything.  But my absolute favorite thing about this time of year is gearing up for NaNoWriMo! During National Novel Writing Month teachers, students and folks from around the globe take part in the challenge to write an entire novel in the thirty days of November.  It sounds crazy for anyone, so why on earth would you ever attempt to write novels with a class of heterogeneously grouped students who don’t even particularly care for writing in school at all?

Because it’s magical.

Much like the changing leaves, exploding with vibrant colors, so too will your students’ attitudes and efforts in writing change and explode with possibilities that even they had never imagined.  I have been a middle school teacher for more than 20 years, and I can honestly say that nothing compares to writing novels together as a class.  It is arguably the single most impactful academic experience that a student can share with his classmates.  It builds confidence and motivation for students (in writing and in other areas of life), it reinforces what we are already teaching and makes it meaningful to our students, and it helps them to feel like they are a part of something  that matters for real out in the world.

Here are a few tips for a successful dip into Lake NaNo:

  1. Integrate it into your existing curriculum to give authenticity, meaning and purpose to what you already do in your classroom.

Participating in NaNoWriMo presents obvious benefits for our students by connecting the writing work that authors do in the real world with the writing work that we do within our classrooms. It provides validation and a wonderfully authentic opportunity for students to apply the literary elements you are already teaching such as characterization, plot, setting, and conflict in their own writing. And they get to demonstrate their knowledge of literary devices such as flashback, symbolism, imagery, and irony throughout the month in the same way that real authors do.

Additionally, something unexpected occurs inside every student who takes part in this ridiculous challenge. After writing their novels, students will never read another story or novel without knowing the work that went into developing each character and his or her actions. They will no longer casually breeze by vivid details, deliberate word choices, or imbedded symbols. Learning the skills in the reading portion of the curriculum, and then fearlessly crafting and applying them in their own writing makes an impression. This synthesis of knowledge bridges the gap between reading and writing and brings new meaning and a heightened awareness into their everyday reading and writing lives.

  1. Write with your students.

The Author's ApprenticeC’mon, admit it.  If you teach English or language arts, you know that somewhere deep down inside you have this dream of writing “The Great American Novel” one day. Carpe this Diem. If you truly want to make an impact with your students, you can’t just teach novel writing; you have to get in there and get your hands on that keyboard and experience novel writing side-by-side with your students. You have a writer’s voice.  And the world needs to hear it.

  1. Build a true community of writers within the classroom.

Out in the real world, writing communities serve to hold its members accountable, to provide support and encouragement when needed, and to offer feedback at all steps in the writing process.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our students could come to expect this same kind of support system within our classrooms?  Now they can at www.ywp.NaNoWriMo.org .  Here, teachers can create a virtual classroom so that everyone can stay connected whether they are writing at school or at home.  Teachers can post announcements, assignments, and even writing challenges (such as: “Find a way to include green Jello into your next scene. Go!”)  to keep everyone excited and on their toes. Many of my students will also ask for support and feedback directly in the message feed.  Sometimes it’s to help them move past writer’s block, sometimes it’s to test out a line or two for audience feedback, and sometimes it’s to help their characters make tough decisions.  It is so comforting to know that even when we are writing on our own at home, we are never alone. And that makes all of the difference.

  1. Build a true community of writers out in the community.

You already know you are crazy for taking on this insane challenge with your classroom, so why not spread the word out there in your community?  I’m serious; share with your community what you are setting out to accomplish for the month, and get them to join you in your efforts. Contact your local newspaper and news station to see if they’d be interested in reporting this story of your class taking on insurmountable odds to write novels in 30 days!  Share your idea with local businesses and see if they’d be willing to donate goods or gift certificates for the students who meet their word count goals. (Our local ice cream parlor gave us free ice cream cone certificates as awards!) Host “write-outs” around town for your students to get together and write in the evenings or on the weekends in coffee shops, book stores, and even the mall food court! Don’t be shy. The more people see you and hear about what you are doing with your class, the more the excitement builds.  No doubt that everyone you talk to will be amazed by your enthusiasm and dedication to your students.

  1. Celebrate a job well-done.

Participating in National Novel Writing Month shows our students that we believe in them, even when they think that what we are asking is impossible. Novel writing is both messy and empowering. Through the process, students develop writing fluency and stamina, and the ability to produce higher-quality on-demand writing. And that is worth celebrating.

Add comment October 19th, 2016


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