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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Finding the Love for Writing: An Interview with Phil Bildner

By Peter DeWitt — March 15, 2012 5 min read
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“Students dislike writing because they often equate it with testing. Testing is stress, testing is not fun, and testing has taken over.” Phil Bildner

Educators are always looking for creative ways to inspire students to write. Too often students grow to dislike writing because they find it boring or they struggle with it and it’s easier to give up and not write at all. In these days of modern technology it’s easier for students to pick up a game that does all the creativity for them.

However, writing can offer great experiences to students. It’s how we communicate with one another. Writing is also highly entertaining. Everyone has a favorite book that they have read once or twice. Presently, I’m reading the Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick to my third, fourth and fifth graders and many of them were excited when the movie came out so they could see it on the big screen. A good book can change lives!

Writing should be a lot more fun than it is in schools. In an effort to figure out how to break the code and get students to love writing I enjoy going to the experts. One such expert is Phil Bildnerwho has written many best selling children’s books and young adult novels.

I met Phil a few years ago when he came to my school as a visiting author. He left such a great impression, that three years later many of our students and teachers still talk about his visit. As a former teacher, and dynamic presenter, Phil knows how to connect with an audience.

PD: How do we teach kids the love of writing?

PB: We need to give kids permission to write. My fifth grade teacher, Mr. Kramer, was that teacher for me. He was the one who allowed me to write about the Apollo missions and the New York Mets and dinosaurs and all the things I wanted to write. He was the one who showed me that writing wasn’t simply responding to a prompt, doing a book report or answering questions on a worksheet.

There are so many ways this can be achieved.

  • One is through modeling the behavior. This applies to teachers and parents. If you want kids to develop a love for writing, they need to be an environment where they see adults writing for pleasure.
  • Encourage kids to write at least a little bit everyday. Kids should have a journal or writers’ notebook outside of school. They shouldn’t be required to write in it, but they should have it at their disposal so that it’s there when they do feel inspired or motivated.
  • Establish a creative space. This can be in the classroom and at home. The creative space should be a “testing-free” zone. Equip the set-aside area with useful writing tools. Allow students to personalize the space and make it their own.
  • Encourage kids to write together. I love watching kids create their own comics, where one student focuses on the text and the other focuses on the drawings. Or have them write a short skit or play. The different students can each write the different roles.
  • Integrate technology into the writing process. Find interactive learning activities. This is a great way to reach the gamers out there, the kids who spend countless hours staring at screens. Acknowledge that video games are a form of art, and create ways for kids to evaluate and dissect this art form. Have them storyboard the video games they play. Or have them make webs or maps that graphically organize the plotlines.

PD: Why do so many students dislike writing?

PB: Students dislike writing because they often equate it with testing. Testing is stress, testing is not fun, and testing has taken over. Students see what testing does to teachers and parents. They see how schools go on “lockdown” during benchmark days. They see how everything school-related must stop during testing times. In that context, how can writing be enjoyable?

Then I think of the word expository. Beginning in the third and fourth grade, students are tested on their ability to do expository writing. But to a third and fourth grader, expository is an intimidating word. To most adults, it’s an intimidating word! Students dislike writing because it’s presented to them in ways that elicits fear, not fun.

PD: What are your thoughts on using writing as a discipline technique?
PB: Writing is a creative process. Using writing as a disciplinary technique is not creative. It’s punitive. If you want to foster a dislike for writing in students, have them write essays or do extra writing assignments when they misbehave or fail to complete tasks.

With that said, writing does come into play when we discipline. For instance, when a student has done something wrong, we usually want them to reflect on their actions. Often this entails having them write about what they’ve done. That way, the student can look back on their actions and self-assess.

PD: As an author who does dozens of school visits every year, what are some of the best examples of writing projects that you have seen?

PB: The best writing projects I’ve seen all involve listening to students. They involve tuning into their interests and finding meaningful entry points.

One project I’ve seen work (and have tried myself) involves texting. Texting is a separate language. It’s certainly not conventional writing. So have students “translate” one of their recent text conversations into English. The reverse works just as well. Have the students convert dialogue they’ve written into “text.” Or have the students take dialogue from a book they’ve read and convert that. It gets them to look at language and writing through a different lens, and they focus on aspects of their own writing they usually don’t.

Another project I’ve seen work is have students create a sixty or ninety second video commercial that promotes a book. This is really a book talk where the commercial is the end product. It forces students to think in terms of organizing and prioritizing -- how do you get your point across convincingly in a limited amount of time? The teacher didn’t require the students to submit a written script. The teacher only wanted the students’ notes. This enabled the teacher to assess their processes and learning styles.

With my middle schoolers, I used to do the “Picture Book Project.” Each student would research a 20th Century subject area (The Roaring Twenties, the Space Shuttle Challenger, Jackie Robinson, etc.), and write a paper about it. Then the students would have to “convert” their papers into picture books that they would read aloud to 3rd and 4th graders. I loved this project because it worked on so many different levels. It was always fascinating to watch how invested some of the students became in their books and how their primary focus shifted from themselves to their audience (End of Interview).

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On March 22nd Peter will be presenting at the National Association of Elementary School Principal Conference in Seattle and the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) Annual Conference in Philadelphia on March 24th.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.