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.”
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?
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