3 Ways to Unlock the Writer Within Every Student
I’ve always been a writer. At a young age, I told stories using yarn-bound books and notebook paper. In college, I could crank out essays with an ease that made me the envy of my classmates. So, in my first years of teaching secondary English/language arts, I was a bit arrogant when it came to the writing process. Of course I knew how to teach writing! I was a writer. How hard could it be?
But my teaching days had left less time for me to practice writing myself. Then I had a transformative experience: I participated in the National Writing Project’s summer institute. The nonprofit's programs provide space for teachers to work on their own projects, with the philosophy that teachers of writing should write alongside their students. I started a novel during that summer and spent the next four years working on it.
All the while, I slowly started to shift the way I taught writing. In the past, I would have merely talked to students about plot diagrams and story structure. But once I was more aware of my own process, I could talk with students openly about writing struggles and share excerpts of my work with them. I modified some of my old outlines and gave them to students to review. Instead of teaching writing, I began to view students as fellow writers. We became partners in the process.
I’m not saying all writing teachers must sit down and write novels. What I am saying is that teachers are better equipped to teach writing when they know more about the process from the inside—and when they take beginning writers on a journey to navigate that process together. Here are three lessons from a writer-teacher about how to get the creative juices flowing:
1. Treat every writer’s ideas as valuable, regardless of their age or experience.
Teachers can inadvertently stifle young writers’ voices with too much guidance. I have been guilty of telling students exactly what to write and how to write it by forcing topics, outlines, rules, and rubrics. Once, after my students read a story about a magical coat during creative writing class, I tried to force all 30 of them to write a story about fashion. A handful of students took to the idea and wrote perfectly fine stories. But just because I thought it was an interesting idea didn’t mean every writer would have something to say about it.
The problem was that I took away students’ right to their own ideas from the very beginning. The message I sent was that my idea was better than theirs, as opposed to asking what they wanted to write about. In my own writing, I know that I might be able to generate ideas from prompts, but being expected to produce a full piece with such strict guidelines would be detrimental to the quality of the work.
How many times do we over-direct reluctant or burgeoning writers in an effort to support them? Why not use their own ideas to engage and excite them rather than making them trudge through an assignment half-heartedly?
When I shifted my writing classroom from an individual, paper-based one to a collaborative, idea-based one, students’ writing quality drastically increased. But more importantly, students told me that it was easier to face a prompt or a blank page when they started with what they knew. The bottom line: Ideas generate process, not the other way around.
2. Put away the old tools and tricks.
The accepted process in most writing classrooms is as follows: You begin with a thesis formula. You fill in blanks in a generic outline. You write a completed first draft, revise it, formally peer-review it, and rewrite. But as a writer, I often just begin with a blank page and some stimuli for inspiration, like a news story, an interesting statistic, or a philosophical concept. We shouldn’t make the mistake of piling on too much restraint at the beginning. We should instead focus on the process of building a piece of writing through thinking, talking, drafting, and reflecting.
This is especially true for reluctant or struggling writers. Students need stimuli and support to spark ideas and bring them to life. It doesn’t mean some students won’t eventually benefit from some organizational tools, so teachers should have them on hand. But we should resist the urge to handcuff students with supports before they ever get a chance to explore ideas.
Why not ask students to start with a personal experience or historical event? Have them take breaks to read a book or watch a film for inspiration and talk to other students about their ideas, and then come back to a draft. I keep a Google folder of drafts, lists of ideas, cuts from pieces that didn’t work in one draft but could work in a future one, and full pieces of which I’m proud. And that can work for students, too.
3. Create a classroom of collaboration.
When students actually sit and put words on the page, they do it alone. But the words and ideas that make up a final draft do not have to come from solo work. Outside the actual writing process, teachers of writing should never underestimate the power of collaboration for students as they work from rough to polished draft.
We often ask students to write and revise without asking them to talk through their ideas and feelings during the process. Sometimes we’ll tack on a peer-review session at the end—usually a regimented structure regulated by a rubric or planning sheet—but too many times we expect writers to work in isolation once they’re drafting and polishing.
In my own life, I have collaborators who are colleagues, friends, writers I’ve met in person, and writers I’ve met only on the page or screen. We should shift our writing classrooms to be writing communities. For example, I made it a policy to invite a published writer to my classroom to speak every time we started a new unit.
In the end, teaching writing is really about experience, community, and exploration. My hope is that any teacher of writing would approach the task from those philosophies first. Students have the right to engage in ideas as real writers, using the writing as a vehicle for expression. Let's give them the space to do so.