This summer I took off my literacy consultant hat for two weeks and replaced it with my teaching hat. I taught Writing Camp at Project Write Now for two glorious weeks with 7-10 year olds (plus my daughter). Together, we crafted all types of stories.
I learned so much in those two weeks and as the school year approaches and teachers get ready to launch the teaching of writing, I want to share some of my thinking.
Naively, I assumed that my students would come in excited to write, but what I failed to realize was that most of them attended camp because their parents signed them up. They began the week apprehensive, and ended the week proud of the writing they produced. Empathy, flexibility and choice are what turned things around. I want to explore each of these words with the hopes that you will keep these in mind as your launch your year of teaching writing.
Empathy: Empathy is all about understanding the feelings of others. This is always important, but especially important when you are developing new relationships. Jack came in on the first day of Writing Camp looking absolutely petrified. He told me within a few minutes that he hated writing. I can understand both his fear and his dislike of writing. We put ourselves on the line when we write. I still can remember how shaky my voice was when I read the speech I had written for a friend’s wedding. I can talk in front of crowds of people without an ounce of fear, but when I am reading my own writing, I fall apart.
How did I respond to Jack? I told him that I was going to try really hard to make writing enjoyable for him all the while teaching him how to become a better writer. Keeping his feelings in mind, I not only carefully worded my feedback to him throughout the week, but I was also careful about the amount of feedback I gave him. I knew that if I was careful and sparse at the start of our relationship, he would be more open to feedback in the future.
Flexibility: The focus of Writing Camp was crafting stories. I had envisioned that the kids would make picture books so I put together all different types of booklets. On the first day, Jack asked me was if he could write a comic strip. It was easy for me to say yes during the summer, but I wondered if I would have been as quick to say yes in the middle of the school year during a fiction study. This experience reinforced to me that more often than not, the answer should be yes!
Jack told me that refused to write during the school year especially when he had to write three paragraph stories. If we want to reach every child, we need to be flexible without abandoning our curriculum. The curriculum was story. If you check out his comic strip above you will see that he crafted his comic strip using story elements in all kinds of amazing ways.
Choice: In one episode of Jeff’s comic strip, Jeff, the main character, sends a mocking bird, back to the pet store because he went to the bathroom on the floor. When I saw this part of the comic strip, I didn’t ignore the ‘potty’ part of the story, not did I highlight it. We talked about how it helped readers better understand both the story and character.
I again wondered: If this was during the school year and I was a teacher would I have told the child not to choose a story that had ‘potty’ parts? I’m not sure but I know now I would think very carefully before I said no to any topic a child chose. If it helped them write well and wasn’t hurtful to anybody in the class, I would say yes. (Interestingly no other kids included ‘potty’ parts in their writing even after he read it to the class).
Jack and the other kids in my Writing Camp were deeply involved in their writing during these two weeks of camp! Laevers and Csikszentmihalyi would call this flow.” Flow is defined as the mental state in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity (2017).
Teachers: As you begin this year. I hope you will think about empathy, flexibility and choice as a way to get all kids in the writing flow! It’s that flow that will get kids to work hard and grow as writers. Have a great start to your school year and let me know your thoughts in the comments below.