The first few days tell me so much about my students. One of the things that I quickly picked up on is that the only purpose that my current students see for writing is that it completes an assignment. Simply put, they write because they have to. They write because we tell them to.
This is an exciting place to be because I have the chance to show them that there are so many more reasons to write. I get to show them the power that writing can hold. It’s like I get to let them in on this really big secret that they haven’t had the chance to discover yet.
The first place we did this was with our student blogs. This year I am using Kidblog (yes, I am paying the now required 30 dollars per class). After a discussion on why we write, I told my students that I was going to add a new purpose for writing that no one mentioned in the course of our discussion. I added to our anchor chart that sometimes we write in order to share our thinking and our ideas with the world. I told them that often in school, students are led to believe that the only person who is going to read what they write is their teacher and perhaps their other classmates. I shared with them that in actuality, there is a whole world outside of our classroom walls that is waiting to hear what they have to say. But, we need to go out and bring that audience in. And then I shared how we could do that with our blogs and by connecting with others on Twitter in order to find an audience for our blogs.
And the kids were hooked.
After writing our first blog posts together in class (you can find them here: https://kidblog.org/class/lifshitz/posts), I watched as blog posts continued to be submitted from home that evening and I watched the excitement grow as students trickled into class the next day to find comments from others waiting for them on their blog posts.
Giving them this purpose. Giving them a chance to share their voices with the world. It created an excitement for writing that I don’t always see from my fifth graders.
So the next day, when it was time to launch our first official writing unit, memoirs, I knew that I had to make sure that my students knew that there was as much purpose in this type of writing as there was in their blog post writing. I began by sharing one of my new favorite picture books, Rufus the Writer, with my students. And then I began to talk about the POWER of sharing our stories.
And then I stopped and gave my students time to talk in small groups about why we tell stories from our own lives. I told them that as I walk through the halls in the morning and as I listen in on their conversations in class, I often hear them telling each other stories. I know that when they go home, they are eager to share stories from their days with their families. And I know that when they return to school, they are eager to share stories with me from their time at home. And yet, for some reason, when it comes to writing down our stories, so many children believe that they have no stories to tell. So I asked them to think about the stories that they are most excited to share and then I asked them to think about why we want to tell these stories from our own lives.
After giving them some time to talk, I asked groups to share out some of their responses as I gathered them on our anchor chart. Here are the two charts that we developed in my two different classes:
Their answers were incredible. As always, once given an opportunity to really think about WHY people in this world would do the thing that we are about to learn how to do, the kids came up with incredible meaning and purpose for their work.
Once we identified some of the reasons why we would tell our own stories to others, then it was time to begin thinking about the stories that we all have to tell. This is typically where I see the most shutdown occur in the first few days of writing. The students who believe that they have no stories worth sharing, who would rather just write fiction (which we will certainly get to) and who do not see value in telling stories from their own lives.
I always struggle with why. Why am I forcing them to write stories from their lives? Why don’t I just let them write what they want to write? Why, other than because it is in our curriculum for 5th grade, do I always begin with memoirs? And then I remember. What I am telling them is what I truly believe. I believe that there is SUCH power in learning how to tell your own story, to control the message that is being shared about who you are, to be the one who is empowered to tell your stories to the world. And I want them to know how to do this. I believe in the purpose of this writing. I believe that each of these children deserves to know how to tell stories from his or her own lives because I believe these stories have the power to teach others. And so we march on.
I shared with my students some brainstorming that I did in my writer’s notebook to help me think of some stories from my own life and to begin to think about the reason that I might tell these stories. Here is the work that I shared:
I then asked the kids to create the same chart in their writer’s notebooks. I asked them to look at the list of purposes that we had created and use that to see if they had any stories from their own lives that matched some of the purposes that we listed. And then, for some students, I watched them sit and struggle for ten minutes.
For so many of our students, they feel as if they have no stories to tell. That feel as if their stories don’t matter. They feel as if their life is not worth writing about. And I used to swoop in to save those students. I used to sit with those struggling students and ask a huge, long list of questions in order to spark ideas for them. But now, now I allow them to sit in silence. Now I am not worried if their pages remain blank for minutes at a time. Now I know that my job is not to simply feed them ideas, but rather it is my job to help them believe that their lives and their stories are worth writing about. And that there is purpose. So much purpose. In writing stories from our own lives.
At the end of our first day, I asked students to sit and talk with each other about some ideas that they had. I noticed kids who had struggled beginning to be inspired by the stories of others. I noticed that kids were talking about WHY these stories were worth telling. I heard kids beginning to talk about a bigger purpose for their writing than simply to fulfill an assignment. For other kids, this work is going to take much much longer. But I am okay with that. I am okay with the slow way in which this important writing work begins. I am okay with knowing that it is going to take some time before my students begin to believe that there is a space in this world for their words and ideas and writing. It is going to take some time before they trust that our stories are worth sharing.
So we will keep working and talking about the many purposes for writing and sharing and telling our stories and I am putting my faith in my students that soon they will understand. Soon they will begin to see the stories that they are surrounded by. Soon the pages of their notebooks will start to fill up. Soon there will be so much writing to do.