Empowering Student Writers

At the recent ICTE conference, I attended a session called “Beneath Our Practice: Who Am I Becoming as a Writer and Teacher of Writers?” I gravitated toward this section, because I am always becoming as a writer and teacher of writers. I’m never finished. It was mainly a reflective session, and it asked several key questions:

  • What problems and/or opportunities has my life as a writer allowed me to offer my students as writers?
  • How are the practices I use to teach writers connected to who I am as a writer?
  • As a teacher of writers, do I think my students should be like me?

For years, I’ve enjoyed modeling writing in front of my students. While I hope they’ll interpret my think-alouds as comforting (I openly show all the IDK moments involved in drafting), for the disempowered writer, who sees my confusion as nothing more than a momentary lapse in confidence, my modeling probably comes across as showing off.

It wasn’t until last year that I shared a more pragmatic “what works” idea: set a word count goal for the class during their first draft writing period. It was so concrete that even students who had never written more than a paragraph-long piece ended up conquering the blank page. Lest it seem too basic, it worked for me as a teacher too. When a student couldn’t hit the 150-word mark (or whatever was feasible for the class/age), I just had to coach them to write that bit (e.g. how to start, how to end, or how to develop this paragraph–a bunch of great conferring lessons). It also built immediate efficacy, because it’s totally doable. Final bonus: it kept students on task. If they finished early, I told them to reread their work and “make it better.”

Typically I focus on writing technique lessons, but that’s only a small part of what it takes to be a writer. Technique is something I only notice when the writing sucks (i.e. after I’ve begun writing), but often, it’s what I start with in teaching writing (i.e. before the writers are interested or ready). In this manner, I end up teaching the writing and not the writer, even if it’s “how to write a conclusion.” So now I wonder: If students were equipped with what works for actual writers, would their writing improve? What would it look like to teach what’s empowered me as a writer?

To be empowered, writers need…

…to feel they have something to say.

Notebooks and planning help me do this. Notebooks should be an idea flood, a personal playground filled with scraps and sketches. With planning, we often think of a particular system, such as outlines or graphic organizers, but for the writer, planning is less about a particular form than it is about vision. In order to begin writing, I need enough vision to believe that it will be awesome and fun to write a particular piece.

…a track record.

As I mentioned before, this is the simple task of sitting down and writing regularly. An empowered writer is one who, during a bad writing day, can remember a good writing day and its rewards in order to persevere. Many students have no consistent track record upon which to draw for encouragement on the dark days, but a student who hit the word-count goal yesterday believes they can do it again today, even if today presents new challenges.

…people with whom they can celebrate and commiserate.

My writing group has done more for me as a writer than anything else. It’s my accountability when I don’t feel like writing. It’s my encouragement when members shout with joy at the product of my hard work. It makes my writing better than I could have made it alone. It reminds me that all writers struggle all the time.

…confidence and security in the midst of ambiguity and obstacles.

As with anything worth doing, writing is hard, but empowered writers know how to revise and how to seek help when they don’t know how to revise. They know how to interpret writing group comments and revise on their own by putting themselves in the shoes of imagined readers. They know how to find exemplars of good writing from which to learn and how to find instructive articles and people when all else fails.

…an audience (even if it’s themselves).

Empowered writers can call writing finished, even though it’s really just a snapshot of the writing’s place in time. The truth is, I could work on one novel forever, but if I’m truly empowered, I’m willing to let it go and move on. As I seek publication, this is scary. No one may accept my manuscript, but without a rejection, I haven’t even tried.

In subsequent posts, I’ll explore each of these areas in-depth. What works for me, and how do I know it works? What do I do when what works for me doesn’t work for others (le gasp!)?

What lessons have you taken into the classroom based on your writing life? How else are writers empowered?

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