Handwriting: Should it stay or should it go?

As I wade through the ever-thickening tech sludge, I find myself feeling guilty for teaching handwriting and anchoring handwriting firmly in the writing workshop experience. Am I just old school? Am I just descending to my own preference menu?

After doing a little research, I think I might have some potent backup when it comes to sticking with the pencil versus the keyboard.  Findings compiled in the Wall Street Journal rough out a compelling argument for maintaining a balance between the pencil and the keyboard.  Currently most elementary students in the US only engage in an hour of handwriting a week. Here are some of the robust data points:

Writing by hand can get ideas out faster
 University of Wisconsin psychologist Virginia Berninger tested students in grades 2, 4, and 6, and found that they not only wrote faster by hand than by keyboard — but also generated more ideas when composing essays in longhand. In other research, Berninger shows that the sequential finger movements required to write by hand activate brain regions involved with thought, language, and short-term memory.

Writing increases neural activity 
A recent Indiana University study had one group of children practice printing letters by hand while a second group just looked at examples of A’s, B’s, and C’s. Then, both groups of kids entered a functional MRI (disguised as a “spaceship”) that scanned their brains as the researchers showed them letters. The neural activity in the first group was far more advanced and “adult-like,” researchers found.

Kanji form is evidently going down the tubes too if that makes you feel any better. The article wraps up with an interesting observation by Heather Horn of the Atlantic Wire who muses that all this research fascinating albeit “mostly shows that scientists are finally beginning to explore what writers have long suspected.” She cites an article in the Paris Review in which the interviewer asks novelist Robert Stone if he predominantly types his manuscripts. His reply: “Yes, until something becomes elusive. Then I write in longhand in order to be precise. On a typewriter or word processor you can rush something that shouldn’t be rushed — you can lose nuance, richness, lucidity. The pen compels lucidity.”

For the moment, I feel a license to keep my electric pencil sharpener on alert and those number two carbon critters in supply!

Looking for Possibility


“The first draft of anything is shit.”

 Ernest Hemingway

Even Ernest Hemingway recognized that the first draft of anything is crap. He valued the latent potential of the draft, the power that is later released through copious revision; he did not expect or anticipate that his first draft would be terse and cogent. In fact, he spent hours carving out sentences, paring down his word count. It took time. As the school year unfolds into new beginnings, it is important to recognize that students are “drafts” of who they might possibly become. And for a number of students, the first draft is somewhat unrefined.

Teachers like to celebrate small innuendos of educational history such as the fact that Albert Einstein still didn’t know how to read in second grade; Dav Pilkey developed Captain Underpants in a desk in the hallway where his teacher plunked him for many hours; Richard Branson’s epic dyslexia; the fact that both Jobs and Gates were college drop outs.  I suspect we like to think that our teaching has morphed since the twentieth century and we now successfully differentiate for those students naturally inclined to be outside the box. Unfortunately, as the new school season ramps up and conversations percolate in hallways, I notice how quick we are to focus on students’ deficits and how challenging it is for us to put the lens on abundance, to see clearly what students can do. We still want to hammer everyone into the mold.

As information triples daily and teachers struggle to keep up, to innovate and evolve, it seems more important than ever to see clearly what our students are capable of.  When focused on ability, teachers can define and clarify next steps. When focused on deficit, the landscape seems land-mined. We become so distracted by the debits, that we lose the horizon. Next time you feel overwhelmed by all your students seem unable to do, take a deep breath and reframe your question: What can most of the students in this classroom do? They are just first drafts. But layered deep in the words of the first draft is the bud of what is possible. I believe it’s our job to look for potential, to celebrate possibility.

This conundrum is nowhere more apparent than in the initial days of the writing workshop. Some students struggle to even put words on the page. My conferences rely on conversation; I try to find the budding ideas in the squiggly drawings, the integral nugget in the unfinished sentences. This isn’t easy. On many a day I want to say: “This is a piece of shit!” But, I know from experience that these words or gestures that approximate this message will only encourage the writer to quit. Writing is art, sizzled with identity and forged with skill, no different from dance or sculpture. Young writers are just finding their footing. Nietzsche noted: “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.” I keep this quote tucked in a pocket, close to my heart at the year’s start. It’s so easy to forget that these small stumbles will lead to flying one day; a flight I might never witness. Next time you’re holding a piece of shit that someone just turned in, try to remember that buried in the dangling modifiers and the lack of tense agreement, is the budding soul of a writer. The words that shuffle off your tongue have the power to make or break a writer. What teacher do you want to be?

Beginning Again

“Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.”

William Wordsworth

It’s time to start again. As teachers we get a do-over every year, a time to hone, tighten, delete, enhance. How spectacular is that? Just like a phoenix, we rise from the ash and release our scoured summer selves into the turbulence of another school year. The choice is ours for the most part: do we continue on the same path continuing to do business the way we always have or do we change, reinvent, and revision? 

I have a bit of Shiva the Hindu god of destruction in my soul. I like to break things down and reinvent. I’m not suggesting that the baby go out with the bathwater because I am quite aware of how tense that makes seasoned educators. What I am proposing is that it’s worth a moment to think about curriculum as if it were living in a burning house: if you could only save a few things, what would they be? What do you hold sacred? What’s dispensable?

I’ve been throwing this lens on my writing workshop practice this past week as I prepare to ramp up again. Why do I value the workshop model so much? Why do I think writing is so important? What do I want to hold on to? What might need to disperse?

I think that writing is a means of understanding yourself. When I write, I find out more about myself, how I think, what I wonder about. When I read, I enter other author’s worlds, get sucked up in stories that aren’t my own but for the duration of the read, these stories own my heart. As I go into another school year, I want to inspire my students to leave their heart on the page, breath it out in print. Find a shape to their stories and by shaping stories, my hope is they’ll discover a little bit more about themselves.

 This year, I’m running out of the flaming house with the following things:

  1. Writing notebooks. I still believe in a 3-D tangible place to stash your heart. I believe in markers, crayons, scissors and pockets. I still cram my own notebooks with old photos, author interviews, favorite poems, pictures that flame my imagination. These are the bits that bring me back into the creative process when I’m broiling from too many meetings, too much screen time, too much conversation. There is nothing more sacred than the possibility inherent in a cool empty page.
  2. Spaces and places for sharing written work. Authors need to be heard and celebrated. Writing is a vulnerable undertaking, an intense cognitive pursuit. When I write, I want to know what someone else thinks. Every writer needs a support group, readers who recognize what he or she is attempting to do; readers who can applaud the novelty and help bring the fuzzy edges into focus. This year I want to create more opportunities for my young writers to fuel each other, to voice their thoughts in community, to publish and flourish.
  3. My own writing practice. Young writers need teachers to write, to model the process, the challenges, to understand the journey. Last year I started a writing notebook with just my students in mind and I was startled by their positive response; they were interested in how I crafted my ideas, they wanted to explore my thinking, read my written work. By sharing my own writing, I validated their pursuits, became an authentic member of our writing community. They forgave my sloppy drafts, my lack of attention to deadlines, and my tendency to generate more starts that endings. They taught me the necessity of walking my talk.

What are your three things? You don’t have too much time to run into the flames and escape with the goods. What will you grab? Why?


Winding up the Writing Workshop Experience


Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.

William Butler Yeats

Every year at this time I wander my classroom dialoguing with students about their stories, their wonderfully rich stories that with three weeks left in the year will undoubtedly never come to fruition unless a student is particularly inspired during the summer and independently motivated. Their plans and aspirations are deeper and more promising than anything they’ve written yet this year. They have no sense of time creeping up on them as they draft chunks of dialogue, rehearse it in their heads, share, and delight in the peels of laughter that erupt from their peers. They are deeply saturated in the writing experience, living the writing life. On one level I know I’ve been successful; I’ve seen students take incredible risks with language, try on new personas, reach personal vistas…yet why does a little voice in my head still wonder if it’s enough?

If I worked at a school where I felt the philosophy of the writing workshop was well honed, where every teacher valued the development of the writer over the writing, I might feel more secure. I do not live in that landscape. Each year I wonder if nine months of creative freedom, of roaming and developing your personal writing identity, can sustain a student’s sense of creative worth through a subsequent year of externally imposed content. I wonder if the students will be able to transfer the writing skills they’ve learned into an environment that doesn’t nurture a writing life. Are they too young to see the connection? If I had to set up shop on a new planet tomorrow, leaving earth behind, would what I’ve learned be adequate, would it help me effectively navigate on unfamiliar terrain?

Don’t get me wrong. I do believe in grammatical know-how, crisp sentence structures, conventional spelling. I just don’t believe in these at the cost of creativity. A skillful editor is not the same as a talented writer. Too frequently, in education, we want to forge editors. We continually broadcast the message, (even though the majority of the research speaks to the opposite pole), that editing is more important than the mysterious struggle of fusing your imagination to words. Because a conundrum exists between the creative process and the generation of a polished writing “product” in elementary education, capable teachers are often riddled with self-doubt, wonder if they’re doing their students justice to steep them in a creative cauldron.

John Holt, author of How Children Fail, notes: If we look at children only to see whether they are doing what we want or don’t want them to do, we are likely to miss all the things about them that are the most interesting and important. This is one reason why so many classroom teachers, even after years of experience, understand so little about the real nature of children. Only as teachers in schools free themselves from their traditional teacher tasks—boss, cop, judge—will they be able to learn enough about their students to see how best to be of use to them. Holt made this observation over thirty years ago. When I think about why the writing workshop is so difficult for teachers to successfully implement, it comes back to the teacher’s role within the workshop construct. Boss, cop and judge are still at play although many teachers don’t notice it. Check out these sentence stems that I hear quite often from the mouths of teachers: “Here’s what I want you to work on today;” “That’s not what I asked you to do;” “Didn’t you pay attention to the model?” Even in seasoned classrooms, teachers often lead from a teacher-centered point of view, invariably making the child’s perspective obsolete. Just as in a dystopian society, students learn to tow the line or bare the consequences. If we have spent a year inspiring kids to cultivate a point of view, to lead forth with their intuition, and to trust their own capabilities, we can easily be viewed by colleagues as trying to undermine the predominant school culture, which rests on obedience and an architecture of rules. Do we decide, given the odds, to be like Dustfinger in Ink Death, and play with fire? Can we choose otherwise?

I don’t claim to know the answer to this question. I know that in my fifteen years of practice in eight different school environments, this has been a recurring internal dialogue for me, especially as the year dwindles into summer. In disparate educational settings, from elite private schools in San Francisco to ELL classrooms in Taipei, parents and students alike have embraced my approach to learning, valued their growth, felt valued within the learning environment. On occasion, I have been lucky enough to work with teachers who share my philosophy of learning, who believe in the integrity of a workshop model, who co-create student centered learning territories. I have had small glimpses of the wonderful power that comes from students rolling through similar educational structures with similar expectations. However, it’s been my experience, even with the energy generated from Columbia Teachers College, that it’s hard to grow a group of teachers truly committed to building authentic writing workshop cultures within their classrooms. Given this reality, how can those of us who believe in this work keep the fire lit even if there will be pail after pail to fill?

Some Things to Explore:

  1. End the year with a lot of specific compliments. Celebrate growth. Share often. Let them exit with the roar of applause in their ears and a sense of purpose in their hearts.
  2. Find writing contests that can keep the desire to write alive. Publish student work on a shared summer blog where students can continue to check in, comment and enjoy being part of a cyber writing community.
  3. Team up with like-minded colleagues to sponsor an after-school writing club. (No need to script mini-lessons, just set the tone, inspire writing, and share at the end of each session.) Once a week, keep the embers glowing.


Evidence of Living a Writerly Life

A Trio of Mini Lessons to Riff Off

“I am still learning.”

Michelangelo Buonarroti

Is the process of teaching kids how to craft a lead wearing you thin? Is the predictable architecture of a beginning, middle and end leaving you hungry for something different? Are you feeling like the writing workshop is an antihistamine you suck down every day? Maybe it’s time to try something a little different.

It’s easy to get into a paint-by-numbers routine when scripting mini-lessons, easy to fool yourself that it’s that simple. If I just provide the outline and the colors, they’ll be able to recreate the Sistine Chapel, or at least one angel, heck, how hard can that be? However, if you’re like me, there comes a point in the year when I’ve run through all my key mini lessons on craft and I notice that my students’ writing has improved marginally but there’s still a lot of space to grow. Here are three mini-lessons that can help students till some of the larger writing fields out there; lessons you can spin off of time after time to help students shape writing that has an impact.

Words Matter

As writers, words are our brushes, paints, chisels, hunks of rock; writers build worlds using words. Perfect words may be simple or complex; writers need to develop an ear for language and how to find the words that will bring an image or a feeling to life. Some key ways to build a love of words with your students is to use dictionaries and simply generate word lists. Share some words you love, words you love to say, words you love the meaning of, giant words and ant-size words, let them in on how cool words can be. Another great way to indicate the power of words is to take a sentence from your own writing and circle a single word. Generate a list of five or six other words you could use. Try out each one and have the kids respond. Then build in context, fit the sentence into a paragraph or cement it to a larger chunk of writing. Discuss if the word choice wobbles within this new context. Is there a right word? It’s all great fodder for conversation and it also illustrates just how difficult the task of writing is. Got a great word-based lesson? Post it up!

The Bigger the Issue, the Smaller You Write

Ralph Fletcher talks about this idea in his book, What a Writer Needs, (p.49). Essentially the territory he’s mapping is the same as the sage old writing advice, “show don’t tell.” People like to write about significant moments. Death and love inspire a lot of writers to sit down with paper and pen trying to capture huge waterfalls of emotion. However, writing about big issues is usually overwhelming and the writing easily becomes mundane or muddy as the writer fumbles to encapsulate an experience that resists a container. The key is to capture the small story that lingers on the sideline of the war, the disaster, the wedding, the funeral, or the divorce. One interesting way to teach this lesson is to present the students with a complicated image from a disaster site or a war zone. It should be a photo that opens itself to story, one that isn’t too graphic, (check out the annual photo journalism awards for some possible ideas: http://www.worldpressphoto.org/). On a sticky note, (limit space to limit time), have students write a couple of sentences about what they see. Then share out in pairs, small groups, trios, or whole class. What have they honed in on? What’s the focus of their written snapshots? What’s the feeling behind the writing? Weave in the idea that truing details based on description can often access emotion more successfully than a dissertation on feelings.

This lesson can also be done as a teacher model using a powerful moment as a focused example. Write a short piece two ways in your own notebook. Use this written duo to show students your thinking; it’s also kind of a fun exercise to play with. Take a big issue and overwrite it; then, work within the cracks and try to write about the same idea set keeping the writing small. Notice what happens. Share with your students. You can also have them try this second exercise independently and explore what happens.

Remember the Reader

Often when student writing becomes garbled and unclear, the writer’s forgotten that he or she is a storyteller weaving a word web that others must be able to decode. Toni Morrison speaks of the dance that’s created between the writer and the reader: “The words on the page are only half the story. The rest is what you bring to the party.” This is an important data point for writers as well as readers. The reader cannot participate in a conjoined experience if the writer does not use language skillfully enough to apprehend a story. Young writers particularly live in their own imaginative worlds and developmentally it can be a struggle for them to recognize audience. Once again, model thinking using your own writing to demystify the concept. Share a snippet of a piece. Have the students put it to the test: Can they imagine what’s happening? (A fun way to do this is to have them do a quick sketch or comic of what’s going on.) Keep your piece short and try to use humor to your advantage. Have the students compare their quickly jotted imaginings. They will no doubt vary to some extent indicating that the “dance” is always slightly different for each reader.

Another valuable thing to do as a class is to generate a list of questions to help the writer see what a reader needs. Some examples are: Can we imagine the setting? Are we able to make a movie in our minds? Does the movie have the sound on mute; do we need more dialogue to imagine the scene? Does the movie flow from scene to scene smoothly and make sense? Are the characters fully developed? Do we know what they sound like? Do we know their habits? Do we know who the main character is? Sometimes I focus on one or two of these questions during the writing share to help students begin to build a sense of audience.

The main thing to keep in mind is that writing is complex work and by extension, the teaching of writers is also complex. I am continually caught up in the process of trying to see the writer who might be, gently chipping away the marble that holds them back. This is work that demands patience, faith and skill. Can we all do this work? Absolutely but remember, it is work that will never be finished no matter how dedicated and artful a teacher you may be. Take a moment each day to find inspiration, to look at your writing workshop from a different angle, find a unique perspective, refresh your tool set, and follow your intuition. What the writers in your room really need is for you to believe that their writing matters, to have faith that they can improve, and to relentlessly seek out their inner voice, the small sounds hiding out in nooks near the heart that when blown into a song of words give shape to the human experience we all share. This is what you, as a teacher, bring to the party.

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/)

How to Creatively Manage Time in the Writing Workshop: Shifting from the Ideal to the Real

Last week our elementary school faculty had a fishbowl discussion about the challenges of the writing workshop. We hoped that an honest authentic dialogue would collectively help us problem-solve some of the rough spots. One of the most daunting factors about teaching a writing workshop is how to effectively manage time. Below are some ideas that floated out of the fishbowl or popped into my head later. The key thing to remember is that the writing workshop as presented in a lot of “how to” texts is a model. Ultimately, if you preserve the basic integrity of the writing workshop, you have the power to shift and shape the model to suit your students’ needs and the time you have available in your schedule.

Ideas to Try:

Find yourself always skipping the share segment of the writing workshop? Try shifting the sharing portion of the workshop to the beginning. While conferencing, identify a few writers whose work could stand as an example to others. Blend student work examples into your mini-lesson. For instance, do you have a writer who is working in a different genre such as literary nonfiction or poetry? It might be a great time to highlight the idea that writers pursue different projects based on their interests and their intended audience. Do you have a group of kids involved in energized plots loaded with action but void of paragraphs? It could be a perfect moment to focus on the craft of building action while also demonstrating how paragraphs give the reader a break, a space breath to picture and digest the plot. The share can also be done every other day; as long as there’s a rhythm and regularity to it, the students will buy in.

Are you fixated on the fact that at any given time in your writing workshop some writer isn’t involved in meaningful work? Are you paranoid that an administrator will walk in and the one writer rolling on the carpet will be her lasting impression of your ability? Try shifting this responsibility onto the students in your writing community. Have a class meeting and share your observation that not everyone appears to be focused on writing during the workshop. See if the students can find solutions. I’ve been surprised by what they’ve come up with and their willingness to share the responsibility for finding solutions. It’s been my experience that the more ownership the students have of the workshop, the more efficiently and effectively it runs. If one writer in particular struggles with focus, talk to a colleague or an administrator and have this writer spend the bulk of his writing time in a novel environment where there are minimal distractions, (a table in another classroom, on a clipboard in an office area…). Give this writer a timer so he can self-monitor and return to class for the share. Explain that this isn’t a punishment but a strategy to build focus and writing stamina. Usually a few writing sessions spent in this way paves the road for change.

Are you feeling like it’s impossible to embed each piece of the workshop on a daily basis? Then don’t. Really, I don’t have writing conferences every day of the week nor do I have a mini-lesson every day. I manage my workshop time best when I think of it on a week-by-week basis. I usually script three harmonized mini-lessons for any given week, based on a pattern I notice in student writing. I try to fit in two or three conference days each week and have one meaningful weekly conversation with each writer. If I really want students to try a writing activity that will help them hone a new skill but won’t allow time for choice writing, I try to schedule that lesson outside of the writing workshop. What do I keep sacred? Every day the students know there will be time for them to work on writing pieces that they have initiated independently. Every day they can count on reading a piece of their own writing or hearing some writing from a classmate. Every week they will learn one or two new strategies for building their writing skills. That’s it. Keep it simple. Keep it sane.