When I was six years old, my parents signed me up for soccer. After receiving an envelope in the mail one day, my mother told me, “You’re going to be on the Sharks this year.” The Sharks! Wow, how excited I remember feeling! Being on a soccer team was something new for me, and that energy alone propelled me right past potentially daunting feelings of trepidation straight to my first practice. Now, it should be noted that I was not from a “soccer family.” I had not been steeped in the game the way kids from other countries from around the world had been. No, soccer in the 1970s was a fairly new sport to our nation. So, needless to say when I stepped onto the field in 1974, I definitely did NOT see myself as a soccer player – yet. That took time. But eventually it happened. Over several days, weeks, and years, I began to learn some techniques, some ways to practice and get better, the rules of the game, etc. And with coaching, encouragement, support, and lots of practice, I began to build my skills and see myself as a soccer player. A good one, in fact!
As we embark upon a new school year, I have been thinking back to not only my early beginnings as a soccer player, but also my early growth and development as a writer. As a literacy specialist, I like to emphasize the importance of nurturing our students’ Writing Identities. Before kids can become good writers, they must be able to see themselves as writers. It is essential. But, how can we help them do that? Here are just a few ideas:
1. Their lives are worth writing about– One of my greatest mentors, Dr. Mary Ehrenworth teaches us that we must send this message to our young writers. And although not providing kids with the topic they must write about might be a shift from the way some of us learned, it is a necessary ingredient to building a confident, engaged writer. If we as adults find ways to acknowledge and embrace the critical issues that shape our students’ lives by validating their experiences, this will go a long way in fostering a lasting writing identity. Encourage them to write about their lives, what they know. As Ira Glass once said, “Great stories happen to those who can tell them.”
Ehrenworth also points out that knowledge problems can quickly begin to look like writing problems. What if I tried to write about the finer points of handicapping horseracing? Well, since I know nothing about it, I can imagine the page would either (a) look completely blank or (b) it would be full of terrible writing! We must be wary of asking our kids to write well about topics for which they are unfamiliar. Rather, I would suggest we think about how we can channel students’ own experiences and expertise to help them grow as writers. When kids write about what they care about, engagement is generally higher!
2. Most of us aren’t born writers – Natalie Goldberg in her seminal book, Writing Down the Bones (Shambhala, 2005), says about writing, “Like running, the more you do it, the better you get at it” (p. 11). And it’s true– writing (like reading) is a skill learned in use. As my colleague Chris Lehman always says, “We get better at what we do.”
Right now, my seven year-old daughter is taking piano lessons from me. And just like writers, I teach her that playing the piano is something she will get better at it through practice. Dr. Brian Cambourne (1986), in his research on the conditions for learning, calls this “employment” (to download a document on Cambourne’s conditions applications to literacy learning, click here). And what’s encouraging is the fact that most humans are not “born writers”! Author and speaker Ralph Fletcher writes (1999), “Here’s the good news: most of us are not born writers. We were not born with a pencil in our tiny fingers. And very rarely do the words flow clear and sparkling the first time we write them down. Most of us have to work at our writing.” But as best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell points out, it is the opportunity to work hard at something that stands out as a key ingredient to success. So let’s teach our writers that, like anything we are trying to get better at, writing takes practice.
3. The risk — yes, there’s risk in writing! – is worth it – Writing could be thought of as a naked expression of who we are. And so yes, there is always inherent risk in putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboards) and exposing ourselves to others through writing. But what I find magical about writing is the generative nature of the process. When I sit down to write, I don’t exactly know what’s going to come out…and how exciting is that?! Right now, as I write this blog post, I find myself exhilarated by the way these ideas are forming on my computer screen. But that exhilaration is never going to be discovered or experienced by our young writers if they are constantly concerned with “getting it right”. Ehrenworth once said that the Number One way to get kids to stop taking risks is to tell them they’re wrong. Conversely, we want to always be acknowledging and validating what kids are doing well FIRST– this might be called a “lens of strengths”. Because if kids have written something, they have taken a risk. And taking risks is part of the writing process.
One strategy I love to demonstrate for students is how we can place trust in our pens that ideas will surface. We might write, “One day…” or “I think…” or “My idea is…” and trust that ideas will come. This is part of the magic of writing.
Let’s think about some of the things we would love for our students to be able to do:
- Generate ideas for writing
- Incorporate craft ideas and techniques
- See writing as a process
- Achieve independence
- Have confidence
- Be able to begin a piece of writing
- Demonstrate clarity of expression
- Convey messages cogently
- Lose their fear around writing
- Write to think
- Be creative
Fall always makes me think of chilly weather and soccer, and as I reflect back on the days of playing on the Sharks, I am struck by the fact that there was a day that I did not view myself as a “soccer player.” Just like there were days when I did not see myself as “piano player”, “teacher”, “father”, “blogger”, “writer”…you get the picture. But through the support of mentors, a willingness to risk, lots of encouragement, and significant amounts of practice, I now consider these all to be different identities within which I feel confident.
I wish you all a terrific start to the new school year. Here’s to the magic and power of WRITING!