By Tamra Dollar
It’s a scenario I’ve seen play out in my middle school over and over again. Ask a student to write and one of two things happen. I get the “deer in the headlights” look or bombarded with a slew of questions like, “Is this for a grade?” and “When is it due?” It is rare that I see a face that is fearless and excited about writing.
Why? I’ve pondered this question longer than I probably should have, but I think I’ve put my finger on at least part of the answer: the key is environment.
As I continue to improve my teaching of writing, I pledge to make the following changes to encourage fearless and excited writers in my classroom:
Create a safe environment that embraces mistakes as part of the learning process.
I believe that confident writers are risk-takers. They know their first drafts may be not the strongest, for example, but they are willing to jump anyway and start writing. They know that their attempts will be affirmed and not condemned. In order for this to happen, the learning environment should be emotionally safe and student-driven. Some may say, “How will young and inexperienced writers learn if we don’t show them?” True. But we also need to step back and let young writers experiment with their own styles and find their voices. Teachers can do this by chiseling out time in the school day for students to free write for ten minutes, or allowing them to create their own prompts, no matter how bizarre they may seem. I’ve had students come up with prompts like, “Create a to-do list for a villain,” or “You’re on a school bus and it is attacked by aliens…” Freeing writers from fear-based writing–writing focused on correctness or perfection–begins with an environment that celebrates taking risks.
Create a learning environment that focuses on growth not the grade.
I’ve come up with a name for an excessive focus on grading. I call it “gradidous.” In middle school it seems to start in 6th grade and reaches near epidemic proportions by 8th grade. (I’ve had teachers tell me they experience this with students as young as eight years old). Fear-based writing is the root cause of a “gradidous” learning space and often invites plagiarism, inappropriate parental involvement in assignments, or worst of all, an “I don’t care” attitude of the student heart. Samantha, a student in one of my classes, taught me a bit about this. Samantha was the archetype perfectionist writer who relied heavily on parent coaching in pursuit of an “A.” I discovered a parent (or someone) contributing to Samantha’s writing from another location using a shared Google doc. To remedy this situation, and ones like it, I started requiring students to write in paper journals and leave them in the classroom, and I gave students the option of sharing out their writing with our class. Within weeks Samantha began to discover her writing voice and take risks in attempting stronger vocabulary and varied sentence structures. Then, I simply stopped grading journals and instead gave written feedback to affirm what students did well with their writing, responding with feedback like “Great use of a simile” or “What if you tried a ‘show don’t tell?’” Samantha’s writing improved further without the pressure of the “A” and with my encouraging feedback, and other students flourished with this growth-based approach as well.
Create an environment that emphasizes purpose.
Learners need purpose for their writing, an answer to the question, how does my writing matter? Is the assignment to relay information about a science experiment? Is the purpose to share with others my feelings or write a story? Every writer needs to have purpose for completing an assignment other than “it’s part of the curriculum” or “it will prepare you for high school.” While these statements are true in part, they should not be used as the only invitation to write. Middle schoolers have a sixth sense and will either rebel and shut down or write out of compliance, and neither of these is ideal for the budding writer. The better answer is to say, for example, “It’s important to write like a scientist when explaining how volcanoes are formed” or “others will learn from reading your work.” Creative expression like writing a R.A.F.T. could also be used to help students see purpose. This is when the student assumes a role, chooses an audience, picks a format, and explains what it is they want to tell. One of my favorite R.A.F.T.s from years past is in the role of Pluto writing a letter to the science community trying to convince others to allow him to regain his planet status.
As thoughts turn to the next school year, I pledge to focus on the environment I provide for young writers. I will remember that fearless writing begins in the safety of a classroom where risks can be taken, growth is celebrated, and purpose is clear. I hope you’ll join me in making this commitment.
Tamra Dollar, M.Ed, is a Middle School Literacy Coach pursuing a Ph.D. in Reading from Texas Woman’s University. Read more about classroom environment and other topics at her blog, “Confessions of a Literacy Coach.”