- · Stimulate visibility for others.
- · Understand a problem.
- · Illuminate something.
- · Remove darkness.
- Act and react in ways becoming of LIGHTness.
At the website WebMD, the authors write that it is normal for children to begin asking, “Why?” around the ages of 3 or 4. Although this is young, might we consider the importance of such a question even throughout the rest of life? Considering ‘why”, especially when it comes to supporting our readers and writers, can make a tremendous difference.
*Thank you to Dr. David Dockterman for his inspiration in writing this post.
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:
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!
Ah, summer is upon us. Who’s excited?! For many of us (okay, it’s probably the majority) who exist inside the world of education, summer is an extraordinarily wonderful- and necessary- time of the year. It is a time to decompress, recharge, and gear up for the next school year. Sunny vacations, fascinating camp experiences, trips to see the relatives– there is so much to love about summer.
Oh, and then there’s that reading we are supposed to be doing, too. Yeah, that.
Research has show time and time again that students that read during the summer do themselves an enormous favor. Many students do themselves the favor of participating in summer reading programs, such as the Connecticut Governor’s Reading Challenge or programs sponsored by local public libraries. But I sometimes wonder, do we truly understand what is at stake when it comes to summer reading? Since this blog is dedicated to supporting middle school readers and writers, allow me to share some somewhat shocking information:
1. Summer slide is real. When students do not read over the summer, they experience what some term, “Summer Slide.” This is real and has been documented several times in several places– like here and here and here (if you prefer more academic writing, check this or this out). The gist of the problem is simple: kids who do not read adequately, that is to say at least 4-6 books over the summer break, lose ground academically. This contributes to a growing achievement gap. For students living in economically disadvantaged circumstances, the effect is significant. According to researchers Allington and McGill-Franzen (2013), the summer break (and lack of reading and/or access to books) widens the achievement gap between economically advantaged and disadvantaged by around three months. Three months?!
2. Literacy saves lives. A few years ago, I had the pleasure of attending a workshop led by Dr. Noah Borrero, an associate professor of Urban Education and Social Justice at the University of San Francisco. At that workshop, Dr. Borrero shared some shocking statistics. Here are just a few:
So besides the public library, where might we find some high-quality resources that might help connect kids with great books? Allow me to suggest just a few (note: suggested lists are my own ideas):
Becoming a new dad– again– has been an amazing and educational experience. I realize the metaphor here is not completely parallel because Iris is her own baby. She is unique. She is not the same “text”, as it were. But the process of bringing a new set of background experiences and new wisdom gained from those experiences to her life as I begin parenting her– well, it feels similar to rereading a text. I’m not the same dad. And the young people in our lives? Well, once some time has passed, they are different, too. And so it will not be the same “them” when you see them sitting down to reread something. It will be a new reader at the table. And thus, a new journey with new understandings.
“There’s nothing wrong with reading a book you love over and over. When you do, the words get inside you, become a part of you, in a way that words in a book you’ve read only once can’t.” -Gail Carson Levine, Writing Magic: Creating Stories That Fly