Just Let Them Write

 

I’m a strong proponent of writing workshop, of letting students choose their topics, of Lucy Calkins and Ralph Fletcher’s  school of thought. But when I recently re-entered the classroom after taking time off to have children and then work as a literacy coach, I forgot how hard it can be to do just this.

I started in January and after a few days of getting to know the students, I immediately felt the pressure of curriculum timelines, district benchmarks, etc.  We were in the middle of a unit on persuasive writing and I struggled to make sense of the lengthy lessons that came with the district’s writing program.  I found that I spent more time actually reading the information than actually teaching the lesson itself.  Not to say that the students didn’t produce good writing but I felt the need to “get things in,” as opposed to just allowing them to discover the wonder of writing on their own.

In short, I didn’t feel like the writing teacher that I imagined myself to be.

But then I attended one of three after school district writing trainings that I had registered for with my district, “Writing in the elementary classroom.”

I knew I was in the right place on the first day. Just by the feel of the room and the way that the instructors greeted us.  They instantly made me feel welcome and at home.

Our first assignment was to write about a “quality.” They shared an old book called, “The Book of Qualities,” which judging by the cover, looked like something from 1982.  As if reading my mind, Sherry responded by saying, “This book is old, but give it a chance.”

She then proceeded to hand each of us a word from the book, asking us to conjure up an image or feeling about what the word meant to us.

My word was patience. Others included, fear, frustration, joy, etc. She read some of the samples from the actual book, where the author writes a paragraph about each one, like this excerpt from Fear:

Fear has a large shadow but he himself is quite small.  He has a vivid imagination.  He composes horror music in the middle of the night.

Then she said, “Think about what this word makes you feel, or whether it reminds you of a person.Try not to let your pen stop moving.

Just write whatever comes to mind.”

Then she got quiet and asked everyone to write.

****************************************************************

Back to the Clasroom

The next day, I felt inspired to try the idea with my class.  We had just finished our persuasive essays and I was ready to move on from the following sentence starters:
“I know you think that I should….but here’s why I shouldn’t”

Or “I know you think that I shouldn’t…but here’s why I should”

And last but not least…”________________ is the best _____.  Here are three reasons why….”

Ugh.

So I wrote several words on index cards, choosing some from the book and others that just came to mind. Patience, frustration, courage, fear, joy, confidence.

We briefly discussed what the words meant and I wrote a short poem  about what joy means to me on chart paper:

Joy

A fresh cup of Starbucks coffee waiting for me in the morning

Waterskiing on glass – calm water at the lake

A game of Uno with Joey and Julia

I had no idea what the students would produce and also worried that they would find the whole activity “weird.”

But I went with it anyway, handing each of them a card to take back to their seats.

They liked the novelty of this, I think, and seemed excited.

As they went back to their desks, the room suddenly became a flurry of:

What did you get?” and “Oh, I wanted that one, can we trade?

(I ended up telling them that no matter what word they got, if they preferred a different one, they could write about that instead).

I started to give more directions but then remembered the words of Roy Peter Clark from his book Free to Write, a text that I had discovered years earlier when I taught in Pinellas County, Florida:

“The most important strategy I learned as a teacher of writing was to be quiet and let the students write.” (Clark, 1987, p.23)

“I want you to write silently for 5 minutes,” I told them. “I shouldn’t hear anything but your pencil moving acorss the page.  Think about what the word means to you and write whatever comes to mind. Just write.”

“And I’ll write too. Now go!

I sat down in the rocking chair in the front of the room, with the new fancy notebook (pink, green and blue flowers on the cover) that I had received at the training, pen in hand. I decided just to write, like I said that I would.  After a few moments of doing so, I looked up at the class.

I did so with apprehension, half expecting a few of them (or more!) to be playing in their desks, staring at the ceiling or reading a book instead. Maybe drawing.

But a magical hush had fallen over the room and they were all writing! Even Kevin, who often struggled to follow directions.  Now his pencil moved swiftly across the page, as if with a mind of its own. And Pete, who left every day for reading with our learning support teacher and often only seemed to complete literacy tasks if I stayed glued to his side.

His pencil also kept moving, back and forth across the page, back and forth.

After 7 minutes, I stopped them. It was time to line up for lunch.

On a whim, I glanced over Pete’s shoulder curious to see what he had written. The language was sparse and basic, but it evoked a clear image in my mind. It was beautiful.

“Did you know that you just wrote a poem?” I asked him.

“No,” he said, looking surprised and also excited. Then, “Can you read it to the class?”

***************************************************************

Sharing our Feelings Poems

Later, I read his, Kevin’s and Sam’s.  Sam often needs extra support with all areas of instruction.  This is what he wrote in those 7 minutes, without any help.

Loneliness

by Sam

In the desert.

Nobody there,

not even a squeak.

Nobody there.

Just you.

So lonely.

Sometimes scared.

At night,

your only buddy is the sand.

 

We soon started calling these our “feelings” poems and continued them for several days.  I eventually asked everyone to choose one favorite to publish and we displayed them proudly in the hallway, for all passerbys to see.

********************************************************************

These poems reminded me that sometimes we forget what our students are capable of accomplishing. Instead of giving them space to write – letting them surprise us – we uninentionally hold them back.

What I thought might be an activity that the students would view as silly or trivial, turned out to be one that unlocked the potential that lies within all of our students. When I decided to trust them and just let them write, they proved that they can and want to do so.

I stayed quiet and let them write.

And they did.

Reader Challenge:

How can you try this out/adapt this idea for your own classroom? Can you connect it to beginning of the year lessons about routines and building classroom community?

Please share your thoughts and anything that you implement in your own class.

*The names of the students in this post have been changed but the poems are original.

Sources:

Clark, Roy Peter. Free to Write: A Journalist Teaches Young Writers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1987.

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