Celebrating the Writer Behind the Writing

He who would learn to fly one day must first learn to stand and walk and run and climb and dance; one cannot fly into flying.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Have you ever found that some writing can just be really hard to celebrate no matter how deep you dig into your reservoir of compliments? In the moment it’s easy to get caught up with the dialogue in your head, the “judging” conversation, you know this one, it’s the dialogue where you tally how many things this poor writer needs to work on and wonder where the heck to start. It’s also easy to wear the blame for the student, to notice all the deficits and wonder if it’s too late to train to be a barista at Starbucks and abandon this teaching gig. I’m going to suggest that you stash that application in your desk and begin tricky dialogues about sub par work by celebrating the writer, not the writing. Lucy Calkins has been giving this sage advice for over twenty years, (Teach the writer and not the writing. Our decisions must be guided by what might help this writer rather than what might help this writing); but I’m pretty sure it’s a still a stumbling block for many of us.

There will always be a handful of writers in your classroom who face significant challenges. Take a deep breath and accept that reality. Life’s not fair. However, in order to move these writers ahead, you’ve got to embrace where they are and not engage significantly with where you wish they were. The first stance is about the child; the second stance is about you, the teacher. We will never actualize change in our classrooms if we can’t stand in the shoes of the student, trying to imagine life on the other side of the fence.

Life on the other side of that fence can be pretty tough. This year I have a couple of students who find the school environment a difficult learning space; they don’t often feel successful. The other day I passed back a set of papers grade by another teacher. She had taken the time to write personal comments to each child in a flamboyantly scrolled cursive that was way beyond my wildest handwriting envy. I admired her earnest attempt to give each student personal feedback and her ability to balance the glowing comments with the suggestions for improvement. I could tell it had taken her hours to manifest these comments. Yet one of my quirky students had already crunched it up and was ready to flip it inside his desk on Friday afternoon; I asked him why he didn’t want to take it home. “She didn’t think I did a good job,” was his reply and he trounced out the door leaving me with the paper in my hand. I took a moment to digest the comment and read the script on the assignment. It was professionally embedded; in fact, you wouldn’t think a third grader would even notice, but, yup, there it was; she’d thrown him under the bus in the last sentence and that was all he’d zoomed in on. All he took away from this assignment was the negative feedback, which clearly he owned. Imagine how much powerful red pen’s been wasted marking up papers, telling kids the way we think it should be?

A student named Annie taught a similar lesson to me about seventeen years ago. She was a skillful writer; she exhaled metaphor and wrote poems half-scripted by God. But, what was she writing in the workshop? A piece of fiction titled: Dick, Dicky and Dickson. It was a tale of three brothers, the youngest of whom, Dicky, stashed candy bars in the washing machine since he was a bit chubby and didn’t want his mom to know he was overeating. I remember stumbling through a conference, trying to guide Annie back onto the path of all I thought she was capable of. She finally heaved a big sigh, looked at me with a Buddha smile and said: “You don’t like it, do you?” Busted. This conversations wasn’t about her as a writer, it was about my preferences and me as an adult reader. I wasn’t letting her be eight; I wasn’t empowering her to play with her own ideas; I was getting in the way of her evolution as a writer; blocking her progress with my own expectations.

These days when I feel a tension curling up around my spine when I read a student piece, I try to put the lens on myself. What am I trying to manipulate in the writing? What am I not seeing in this writer? What am I not able to celebrate? Writers need space to work things out, play with ideas and words. They need an environment where it’s truly okay to make mistakes. Don Graves said of the writing workshop: Teachers who function well in teaching the writing process are interested in what children have to teach them. * I get that now. Annie taught me that in a way I’d never forget.

The next time you’re struggling to celebrate a piece of writing, throw your attention back on the writer. What are they trying to do? What narrative might be unfolding before you? Can you voice your confidence in the writer and back away from your expectations of the written work? It can be really hard to do. Take a deep breath and affirm what the student knows. This doesn’t have to be a compliment about sentence structure or word selection; it can be a simple affirmation, an “I get you” as a person, I see that you’re really interested in robots and you know a lot about them; I can tell you really love growing plants in your backyard with your mom; I understand that you have a story to tell even if it’s still caught in your heart and hasn’t shimmied onto the page.

*I highly recommend this article by Donald Graves if you have a few minutes and are yearning to further demystify the writing workshop experience. In it he examines how the practice of the writing workshop can be highly effective for students with learning challenges. (http://www.ldonline.org/article/6204/)

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