In a different life, I was an English teacher. In fact, I spent the first half of my twenty-four year career in education writing beside middle and high school kids. Writing workshop was my passion, and Nancie Atwell was my hero (well, she still is). Naturally, I was thrilled when my principal tapped me to design and teach an entire course specifically devoted to this endeavor. For many years, all of the kids in our middle school enjoyed writers workshop beside their core English classes, and I got to be their teacher.
I loved this, and I loved teaching so much that when I stepped out of the classroom to begin doing staff development, I refused to let it go. Nearly a decade ago, I founded the WNY Young Writers Studio, a community of writers and teachers of writing. Then, I began doing a whole lot of action research.
Here’s what I learned: When many young writers sit down to confront flat, empty screens and pages, they experience frustration and even defeat. Wading into procedures that often feel contrived using tools that are completely intangible paralyzes them.
Over time, these tensions perpetuate a sort of quiet trauma: children begin to believe that they can’t write, and then they stop trying. I have to wonder: How many adults might be better able to advocate for themselves or for justice within their communities if experiences like these hadn’t silenced them?
Many children and adults tell me that their writing ideas are quite literally out of their grasp. They can’t wrap their hands around them, and since this is how they learn best, writing remains beyond their reach.
Years ago, I began realizing that maybe the problem wasn’t the writer.
Maybe it was the way I was defining and teaching writing.
This is why I began hacking my writing workshop model. This began with powerful visioning work and careful attention to the culture I hoped to create. These five moves were the ones that mattered most once I had clarity here, though.
Five Ways to Begin Making Writing:
1. First, I got writers out of their seats and onto their feet.
I’ve discovered that many writers need to move, and they need their writing to move as well. They need to write out of their seats and on their feet, spreading their ideas across whiteboards and tables, lifting pieces of them up with their hands, cutting them apart, randomizing them, and tacking them into new and completely unpredictable forms.
These writers need access to diverse tools and resources– far more than paper, laptops, and iPads. They build their stories using blocks and boards. They blend plot lines using sticky notes and grids. It’s not enough for these writers to study mentor texts. They need to tear them apart–physically. They need to use their hands to play with other peoples’ writing, and they need to tinker with their own in order to become adept.
2. This inspired us to remake our space.
When kids make writing, they use classroom spaces in uncommon and even unexpected ways. If your room is filled with desks arranged in rows that cover every square inch of your floor, some quick changes will need to be made. Tables, empty wall spaces, whiteboards, individual foam boards, tacks, scissors, painter’s tape, and chalkboards enable writers to do more than merely sit and tackle the assignments that teachers give them. They allow them to generate a variety of ideas and draft them on their feet. Tools like these invite writers to literally crack their writing open and unpack its working parts. They can spread them across empty space and study how their pieces work in isolation and in concert with the whole. Tools like these also help writers make their ideas, plans, and drafts transparent to others, so that they can contribute to them, provide feedback, and push one another’s thinking.
3. We’ve begun thinking differently about audience.
Making writing truly inspires writers to value process ahead of product, and this changes everything we thought we knew about seeking audience. Gone are the days when WNY Young Writer’s Studio fellows celebrated their accomplishments by participating in readings or showcasing their anthology submissions. We produce powerful stuff and recognize published writers to be sure, but kids who make writing seek audiences who will appreciate the expertise they gain through the process as well.
For example, each spring, we host an exhibition where writers of all ages facilitate conversations about strategies that work for them, how they make writing, and the resources and tools they rely on. Those who publish in our anthology receive their copies that day, and we enjoy a hearty round of applause upon distribution, but the focus is on sharing what was learned throughout the process instead of the results of it.
4. Soon enough, everyone was tinkering.
While many writers begin the process by sketching outlines and filling out graphic organizers, adept writers often begin by tearing other texts apart. They break down the work that inspires them, studying how it works so they can mimic an expert’s approach. While these initial efforts might feel unsatisfyingly derivative, modifying existing frameworks typically inspires the development of texts that are legitimately original.
Rather than treating the process as a routine or a set of defined steps, adept writers move through it in a recursive fashion. Most notably, they tinker during each phase of the writing. When writers tinker, they often make their writing moveable, crafting it on index cards or sticky notes, slicing their drafts into pieces, and isolating portions of their work from the whole in order to study and play with them.
5. This is how kids are inspiring teachers to hack their curriculum.
The WNY Young Writers Studio exists outside of school systems, and the kids I support consume a Common Core aligned curricula every day. They make connections between the processes they use at Studio and the way they approach writing in school all of the time. When these kids share how they make writing with their classroom teachers, I bear witness to the power that children have to lead critical change in this world. Standards are no excuse for standardization, and when kids who make writing show teachers how it can be done, they’re often inspired to “do the Core” a bit differently. Making writing isn’t about ditching workshop, evading standards, or going rogue while your department commits to an aligned curriculum. It’s about rethinking how you attend to these things though. Most imnportantly, it’s about letting the writers we support lead the way.
Here, I unpack each of the steps above in careful detail, providing practical applications that can be used immediately and a blueprint for sustainability. My own stories from the WNY Young Writers Studio are included, as are examples from real teachers who work in real classrooms. These ideas are very new to me, and I’m excited about all that I have left to learn.
How are you leveraging the connection between making and writing? What are your students teaching you? Share your experiences in the comments or catch up with me on Twitter. My handle is @angelastockman, and you can use the #makewriting hashtag.
A former English teacher, Angela Stockman is the founder of the WNY Young Writer's Studio, a community of writers and teachers of writing in Buffalo, New York. She is also an education consultant with expertise in curriculum design, instructional coaching, and assessment. Read more from Angela at Angelastockman.com.
A former English teacher, Angela Stockman is the founder of the WNY Young Writer’s Studio, a community of writers and teachers of writing in Buffalo, New York. She is also an education consultant with expertise in curriculum design, instructional coaching, and assessment. Read more from Angela at Angelastockman.com.