By Kate Sjostrom
Who are these children sitting around me? Surely they are not my eight-year-old daughter and her classmates, though they look like them and go by their names. These children have just asked if they can skip recess to finish critiquing the story we have been reviewing for over two hours. These children have been only constructive in their feedback, never once dismissing something they “just didn’t like.”
The one who looks like my daughter and whose story we have been reading begs, “Please, Mom.” I look at her—at the blue-grey eyes that I share, at the blue and green striped shirt I helped pick out this morning—and I cave. “Sure,” I tell her. “We can keep going.” But I watch her from the corner of my eye as she readies her pencil to take more notes on what is not yet working in her story. Is this really my girl?
After we have come to the end of the final (eleventh!) chapter and the children agree that we had better break for lunch, I am the one who holds us back. “Can I make one more comment, about the piece as a whole?” Here, I think, true identities will be revealed. No one can stand a suggestion this big. “It’s just that in the first chapter the main characters shrink, and in the last chapter they return to their regular size, but nowhere in between is their size mentioned. I’d think being tiny would affect, well, everything.” The children nod, and the girl who looks like my daughter turns to the first page of the story and makes a note. She seems unfazed now, but I can’t imagine she will do all the work it will take to address this issue.
And yet she does. Weeks later, when my daughter’s teacher, Ms. Angela, again takes me up on my offer to help in the classroom, I am charged with proofreading typed stories for the Publishing Party—a favorite, annual event at which students read from hard-bound books, into which they have carefully copied and illustrated their stories, to an audience of parents and peers.
Among the stories is my daughter’s, longer now; throughout, she has taken into consideration not only her classmates’ questions and comments but also my final challenge. I smile as I read, in the fourth chapter, that the character Alex “tried to jump up onto the [jewelry] table but fell back, so she climbed up the drawer handles until she finally reached the top.” As I continue to read, I keep smiling, for on every page the story has grown. While it could be easy to dismiss this growth as unsurprising for an English educator’s daughter, when it comes time for the Publishing Party, my daughter’s story is only one of many that has significantly matured.
Many of the middle and high school English teachers-in-training with whom I work often describe encountering other kinds of students—those who stare with frustration at the taunting, blinking cursor of a blank computer screen. These students likely struggle to put words on the page because they worry the words they write must be right, right away. These students have likely grown dependent on test-handy writing formulas like those described in Alex Kameen’s post on this site instead of being given the space to develop their own voices and styles.
Perhaps the greatest gifts we can give such students are the gifts Ms. Angela gives her students: an invitation to tell the stories they want to tell, an authentic audience, and the time to craft those stories they care about for an audience they care about, too. With those gifts, perhaps even the most reluctant of writers can learn to persist.
Gift #1: Invite Student Writers to Tell the Stories They Want to Tell
Many kids of all ages love to read and write stories, and writing teachers and scholars have found that gaining fluency in any genre increases writers’ comfort, control, and precision with language (Kirby and Crovitz, 2012). Indeed, when I have made ample time for story-writing in the public high school and university where I have taught, my students have marveled at their own growth, more willingly tackled other genres, and had a lot of fun reading their peers’ work.
For those of you with a child or student who does not like writing stories, I propose that it is not as important for young writers to compose stories as it for them to have choices. Whether working with young writers at school or at home, try giving them the choice of genre as often as possible. A great tool for doing so is Cathy Fleischman and Sarah Andrew-Vaughan’s Unfamiliar Genre Project (outlined in their book Writing Outside Your Comfort Zone: Helping Students Navigate Unfamiliar Genres), through which students learn to write in new genres that appeal to them. Those of my students who have completed the Unfamiliar Genre Project report feeling willing to try—and stick with—other new and challenging genres.
My daughter’s teacher offers another type of choice that motivates students: the choice of which story to take through extensive revision to “publication.” As part of the school’s story writing program, all students compose their own books, sometimes dictating their tales to teachers or parent volunteers until their handwriting takes off. Students choose their own topics, review their works-in-progress with peer groups (as described in the opening of this blog post), then choose one story to work on for sharing at the annual Publishing Party. To watch my daughter and her peers enthusiastically read—and actively listen—at the Publishing Party is to be reminded that writers invited to work in a favored genre and on a piece of their choice are more likely to be engaged and to persist.
Gift #2: Provide Student Writers with Authentic Audiences
To watch a room full of excited third graders take proud turns on the Publishing Party stage is also to witness the motivating power of an authentic audience. Writing is hard work. To be sure, I have taken this short blog post through multiple drafts and, more than once, almost thrown it in the trash. What made me persist was not only my desire to tell the story of a group of extraordinarily committed young writers but also—and especially—my knowledge that this blog promised an audience interested in such a story. I had something to say and someone to listen.
As other posts (such as Ken Lindblom’s) on this blog have shown, an authentic audience is key for developing writers. Many of my daughter’s peers are as passionate about fantasy fiction as she is. She wants them to understand and like her story, so she listens when they offer her constructive criticism (which they have been taught to deliver thoughtfully). Though she does not implement all their suggestions, she takes many of them to heart; she knows she will share the next draft with them, and she wants her readers to willingly come along on the narrative ride.
I think it is important to note that my daughter and her peers read their stories aloud to one another, rather than just engaging in the more traditional, pass-your-paper to the left peer review. Asking our students and children to read their work aloud gives them an immediate audience and gives their work urgency.
On the day of the Publishing Party, when my daughter and her peers read their stories to an even wider audience, the school buzzes with energy and excitement. Many students dress up and most parents are there, having arranged well in advance to take time off work. Parents have witnessed the students’ writing grow year by year and cheer that growth. Each student is given a flower after they read to the packed audience. It is a special day.
Gift #3: Give Student Writers the Time They Need to Grow
Given the happy scene above, it is no wonder that my daughter and her peers are willing to get to work at the writing table. What they—and all writers—need most is time to do so. As teacher and blogger Sarah Donovan reports here, assigning writing and revision is not enough; teachers must provide significant time for the often messy and hard work necessary for writing growth.
When my daughter extensively revised her story, she did so because she wanted to tell a good story to an audience she cared about and because her teacher gave her a lot of in-school time to write, to get feedback, and to use feedback. Similarly, I re-worked this post many times because I wanted to share what I felt was an important story with other parents and educators, but mostly—truth be told—because I have scheduled revision time with a writing group.
Too often, writing and revisions are just due, which means they carry with them the pressure to produce and to produce now. We can take that pressure off by providing time to talk about writing projects, time for low-risk writing practice, time for ideas to evolve and change, and time to refine expression of those ideas. When we give young writers time, space, and authority, they persist. One of my friends recently observed this to be true; her daughter was usually resistant to the revision process, but when my friend offered her a time and place to “make sure your story is how you want it,” her daughter eagerly got to work.
When I visit my daughter’s school, I see writers writing. In many ways, my daughter’s school is unique; The Children’s School is an independent, K-8 school started by parents and educators committed to project-based, experiential learning and, as such, teachers have more freedoms than their public school counterparts. In many other ways, the school is typical; for one, it takes effort for teachers to find the significant daily writing time that experts say is essential. (See “The Neglected ‘R’: The Need for a Writing Revolution.”) This said, the joy and growth sparked by the school’s story-writing program perhaps make it easier to prioritize daily writing time. Sure, some kids like story writing better than others, but, on the whole, these are enthusiastic and persistent authors—and, per an annual alumni survey, this persistence goes with them to high school.
We don’t need to start our own schools to pave the way for persistence in writing. We can invite our children to write and share stories at home, and we can write and share our own stories of conditions conducive to writing persistence—such as the one I’ve shared here—with other parents and with our children’s teachers.
Kate Sjostrom is a former high school English teacher and current PhD Candidate in English Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her research and teaching focus on writing teacher identity development. The Children’s School is located in Berwyn, Illinois, but will be moving back to Oak Park, where it was founded in 2004, in the fall of 2018.
Peer reviewed through the Writers Who Care blind peer-review process.