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Want Young Students to Love Writing? Let Them Play With It

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This summer I attended a literacy conference near my school district. The agenda was jam-packed with strategies and insights, inspiring teachers to develop literacy-rich practices for the upcoming year. The conference brought in “big name” educators and consultants: Harvey “Smokey” Daniels, Kate Roberts, and Ralph Fletcher. Each speaker was engaging and informative. Yet my biggest takeaway did not come from these professionals—it came from talking and reflecting with other educators.

Early in his keynote, children's book author Ralph Fletcher invited members of the audience to turn and share, using a 1 to 10 scale, how comfortable they feel teaching writing. I was shocked to hear people mumble and laugh at their low numbers: 1s, 2s, perhaps a 4. A woman behind me bemoaned that teaching writing was the worst part of her day—a time when kids melted down, cried, and threw tantrums.

When asked to explain more, she said that her 1st graders hated the “assignments.” All year long she'd had them writing thesis statements backed up by three points and concluded with a wrap-up sentence. Over and over and over again. First graders. Honestly, I’d cry, too.

I quickly realized that I was the anomaly in the room: an elementary school teacher whose favorite subject to teach is writing. The more I listened to others, the more clear it became that we, as educators, need to rethink our writing practices.

Finding Joy Within the Standards

Writing grounds us in our humanity. We hear so much—and for good reason—about the importance of reading in elementary schools. But I’d argue that writing is just as important as reading for fostering a sense of identity and creativity.

Think about the Thai boys who were trapped in a cave. The first mode of communication to their families was delivered through letters. Or consider the recently released letters Nelson Mandela wrote to his wife and children over the years he spent in prison. In both instances, writing was a means to process and communicate with those they loved.

Yes, educators must teach to certain writing standards. But reaching standards and finding joy, creativity, and a sense of identity through writing are not mutually exclusive. Rather, I feel more confident that my students are reaching the standards when they find joy in what they write.

Where I teach, in Minnesota, one of the 1st grade writing standards declares that students should “write narratives and other creative texts in which they recount two or more appropriately sequenced events, include some details regarding what happened, use temporal words to signal event order, and provide some sense of closure.” Note that the word “creative” is right there in the standard! The standard is also quite broad and allows room for children to write in various forms and styles. When teachers dictate what or how students write during a school year, it limits their potential.

Creating 'Max' and Dragons

Fletcher said in his keynote at the conference that “you want writers to play.” Ideally, they should have fun, take risks, and find enjoyment while writing. Kids love playing, and so this seems like an easy and natural idea to bring into a writer’s workshop. Truth be told, a teacher doesn’t need to put a lot of work in behind this: Kids will play any chance they get. I can think of countless times this has paid off in my classroom.

This spring, for example, my 1st grade students were working on writing narratives. One student created a character named Max. The student wrote story after story about Max, each one building upon, and getting more ridiculous than, the last.

Fast forward to the end of June—weeks after the school year ended. Before boarding the bus after a day of summer school, Max’s creator came rushing up to me with a picture of a robot he painted during art that day. My initial reaction was, “Cool robot!” But when I looked closer I saw the name MAX scrawled across the robot’s chest.

“Hey, it says ‘Max.’ Is this the same Max from your series?” I asked him.

“Yes! In my new story, Max is a robot!” He beamed.

It’s important to note that I was not his teacher for summer school. I was not in the art room with him. It was not even writing time. Yet this student continues to play with Max any chance he gets. He feels a sense of ownership with this new character and engages with him even after the last day of school. This young 1st grader won’t soon forget Max.

Other 1st graders enjoy playing with their writing form and style, too. I think about a different student who engineered a dragon whose tail moves on the page, thanks to some strips of paper and a bit of tape. Had I insisted that he write the words of his story first or put strict guidelines on the assignment, he never would have created that dragon.

Another 1st grader realized that she is truly in charge of her characters by placing me into her stories. She had me doing all sorts of quirky things, like eating my own hair and jumping over buildings. She giggled while writing, finding pleasure in placing her teacher in strange scenarios.

Playing with writing is crucial to finding one’s voice and enjoying the creative process. It’s nearly impossible to dislike something once you’ve played around with it.

Early in the school year, students in my class saw writing as an enjoyable part of the day. I certainly knew something was going well with our writing workshop when many began to choose to write instead of participate in our “brain break” time. I often overheard a couple of students planning their work: “You write and I’ll illustrate.” And one day another student—my most reluctant writer—asked if he could keep writing instead of dance to get his wiggles out.

A Safe Space to Process Emotions

Ironically, when students play with their writing, they are also more likely to take it seriously. During our poetry unit, I modeled how poets think of things that are important to them and then reflect upon why those items are important. I decided to write about a quilt my grandmother made me before she passed away. While I was writing, a student raised his hand and began sharing—for the first time—about his father who died unexpectedly earlier in the school year.

He asked questions about my grandmother’s funeral and compared it with his dad’s. The other 1st graders in the room sat silently, listening to the student process. Later, the student wrote about when he saw his dad in the coffin: “His skin didn’t seem real / he had a different smell.” I doubt this student would have written such powerful lines had he not felt comfortable taking risks with his words.

I had no intention of having a conversation about death when I chose to model writing about my grandmother’s quilt. Yet writing provided this child a safe space to grapple with his father’s death and an opportunity for others in the room to support him through his pain.

Teachers: As the days of summer start to slip away, consider when in your day you will build time for students to write next year. When will they have time to play with language and form? When will they collaborate with others? Where will emotion seep onto the page? With intentionality, the standards will be taught. But it is the joy, playfulness, and humanity of writing that students will remember.

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