By Erica Steinitz and Elizabeth Wilson
As I stand up from conferring with a writer and look out to see whose writing I might lean into next, I am struck with a realization—there isn’t a writer who needs me. I am constantly evaluating the classroom to find where a writer is stuck, ready for the next step, curious about inquiry, and at this moment there are none. Or are there? Yes, in this moment authors in the kindergarten community have taken on the role of both writers and collaborators. I sit back on my table and realize there is a group of writers ‘talking shop’ laying in a circle on the carpet. There is a writer working on crafting his cover. Writing partners are exploring vocabulary to get ready for their next piece of writing. A trio across the room is sharing their writing with each other with pride and engagement. The buzz of writing is in every corner and crevice of the room. The room itself has taken on a shared energy and excitement. Writers are developing and using the community to grow their practice and I am simply a piece of that community. I could sneak out without notice. The independence of these writers is evident from their employment of their tools in both themselves and their community. For now, I can sit, drink my now cold coffee, and watch, even if just for a minute, these growing writers quite literally blossom.
This example, from Elizabeth’s classroom, embodies the work of emergent writers. In the next two sections we explore structures that support the empowerment of writers, and the various roles that teachers can play. We look to examples such as writers workshop as a method and pedagogical frame to instruction, and an expanded view of what ‘counts’ as writing for emergent writers, and to center the inquiry and lived realities of individuals in a writing community.
What are the structures that support the empowerment for young writers?
When we think of emerging writers, we often pause at the idea of storytelling. It is not the idea of young learners telling stories that gives pause, but the tools they have to tell those stories. We see the limitless potentials of writers to use their stories as agentive writers. They have meaningful and valuable experiences, and curiosities of the world around them. Our role is to design a learning space where writing becomes a possibility to lift up and share their stories and talents with others. How do we steer a storyteller to the vehicle that best fuels their story?
We see writers workshop as a method for structuring writing in the classroom, and a pedagogical frame, where emergent writers write for extended periods of time with flexibility on topics of their choosing. For emergent writers, workshop expands what ‘counts’ as writing, and creates opportunities for all writers to access authorship. With emerging writers, and all writers, we conceptualize writing as exactly what the students create: images, oral stories, and written texts of any form. It is our role in workshop to celebrate the writing work they are engaging in. Workshop opens up a world of choice, independence, and inquiry that allows writers to write from their interest and experiences and in extension, see themselves as writers, in a community of writers. For example, students take ownership of where they sit, the tools they choose to use, and most importantly what story they will tell, and how they will tell it. When students have the freedom to write from their experience and interest we take away one obstacle in the process and allow our instructional focus to be on what the writer truly needs at that moment. We follow their lead, and coach the writer and not the writing.
When we design spaces where students engage in authentic choice, fostering opportunities for students to establish themselves as writers. This includes the choice of paper to use, the writing tools in which they express themselves, and most importantly the story they choose to tell. What format they prefer, what structure communicates their ideas both aesthetically and didactically, and how are their ideas being inferred and is that the intention—all of these are questions young writers explore when they are allowed to share their wealth of knowledge. To do this, we value collaborative spaces, and room for students to choose what they know. As is true in many rooms, students may start with a heart map of topics close to their heart, and to extend from that, students recognize through the structure of workshop that their stories in their hearts, are not only worthy of writing about, but also in sharing through authors chair or writing chats with the community. When students write what they know and care about, they are more engaged in their piece and we, as teachers, can observe what they understand about writing.
When we see what they know and need to know, we confer and collaborate around an authentic writing strategy that can be immediately applied. As teachers, we design mini-lessons through their collaboration with writers, our conferences spill into the next mini-lesson based on noticings and patterns across writers in the class. Additionally, students see their teacher, and peers as tools to work with them through their writing together. From this flexibility and ownership, the true beauty of workshop emerges: writers become independent. Making choices about their author moves, looking into their peers and environment around them, students can select texts as mentors to guide them in their writing decisions. The decisions, while independent, happen in a collaborative learning space, speaking to the intentional craft students are putting into their writing. Young authors explore components of writing that were previously out of reach when we value the way in which they want to tell a story. Workshop allows us to see this value and facilitate a community of writers around empowered writing practices.
What is the role of the teacher in the empowerment of young writers?
The intention and the role of the teacher is important to meet the needs of individual writers and support them in their continued writing success! We lay out three of many roles that teachers can play: teacher as designer, teacher as collaborator, and teacher as facilitator.
Teacher As Designer: This position speaks to the work that teachers do before workshop and choice writing times. As a designer, teachers consider the physical space to create a room for easy collaboration between students and for students to access various tools. This also means building responsive mini-lessons to guide students in navigating how to use these tools and the space in action. For example, offering multimodal options for composing in the classroom means a classroom design that builds confidence in determining when these choices will be effective. We might collectively reflect on how to select the best spot for writing, and ensuring that there are mentor texts available that model quality writing based on students’ choices of genre. We see the design elements including the classroom physical space, the mini-lessons, and the tools available to students for choice in their composition.
Teacher As Collaborator: The role of collaborator works within the conferring structure of writers workshop, and complicates the variety of roles a teacher can play in these moments. Teachers can be a thought partner to support students to get started or organize ideas (“Tell me about what you are thinking?… Let me see if I am following…”), offer meaningful and intentional feedback (“Talk to me about your decisions as an author and illustrator on this page. It looks like you have thought about why you included your words and pictures in places all around the page”), or as a tool to guide in editing and revision skills. In these moments of editing and revision, we see a careful balance in offering support, and yet not taking over the child’s writing or goals. This can look like sharing the pen together to put words or images on a page, or offering a think aloud of what the teacher has seen the writer do in the past. Regardless, teachers are collaborators, not experts who write for students, but rather enable authors and illustrators to communicate their ideas effectively!
Teacher as Facilitator: Most importantly, we see the teacher as a coach and facilitator to guide students in leveraging the best teachers in the room, each other. Knowing students’ strengths as individuals and connecting them to collaboratively value the importance of writing and brainstorming with each other can be an incredible tool in empowering young writers not only in their own writing, but also as experts for one another. Knowing the strategies, genres, and purpose that students prefer for writing will be a valuable tool to facilitate interactions and collaborations between the writers within the classroom community.
How do we bring these ideas together?
With young, empowered writers, we want students to think about, talk about, and be proud of the work they are making as authors and illustrators. The same is true with us as teachers. We are designers, collaborators, and facilitators, and we too should carefully think about, talk about and be proud of the work we are making in our classrooms. Ideally, we make learning spaces, through workshop, that cherish the strengths, creativity and innovation that students already carry with them. Our role is not to teach students what to know or do, but to build a community where students know how to make choices that spotlight who they already are as people and writers. Empowered writers critically examine their experiences to write and rewrite their world, and to have the tools to tell their stories. Teachers intentionally design a space that supports the transition from emerging writer to empowered writer. While the visibility of the teacher may be less seen or noticed, the work behind the scenes is infinitely more important. Ultimately, workshop empowers a community of writers, and a room full of teachers, waiting to tell their stories to whoever is smart enough to get out of the way.
Erica Steinitz, M.Ed., has had the privilege of hundreds of empowered writers as her teachers. She is currently a PhD candidate at The University of Texas at Austin in the language and literacy studies program. Her research focuses on justice and love in early childhood classrooms and in teacher preparation. She is a former elementary teacher, coach and administrator, and forever in awe of the lessons learned from the brilliant students willing to teach her.
Elizabeth Wilson is a kindergarten teacher in Austin, Texas. She has learned along side the most wonderful kindergarten readers and writers in for 3 years and actively works to disrupt the systemic inequities in education through empowering practices in her classroom. She uses literacy as a key to open conversations and critical analysis of the world that students navigate.
Peer reviewed through the Writers Who Care blind peer-review process.