“Pretty much I’m already an author.”

imagesPeter Johnston, in his books Choice Words and Opening Minds, reminds us that the language we use with our students can help or hinder their identities.

One of the simplest things we can do when we work with our students is to call them “writers”. This is certainly not a new idea. Lucy Calkins, Katie Wood Ray, Matt Glover, and other experts in the field of writing instruction have been recommending this for years. And I have been lucky enough to see it pay off again and again in the workshops I visit.

I was visiting a first grade classroom during writing workshop not too long ago and I talked with students about their writing lives.

One student can’t wait to show me her writing folder. After fanning out her many books on the table – illustrated stories and “All About” books on topics she cares about – she says, “Pretty much I’m already an author. Look at all these books. I guess I might as well be a writer when I grow up.”

At six years old, this student, and all of her classmates, exhibit tremendous confidence in their writing. Of course, the teacher does much more than refer to her students as writers. She teaches, models, demonstrates, provides time to practice, and gives feedback.

These first graders do what all writers do: they make choices, they find the best way to communicate their ideas, and, yes, they hold themselves accountable by finishing the projects that bring them the most energy and joy.

When I work with teachers around the country, one of the common concerns about the workshop model is that it lacks structure. I am always surprised by this comment. If  “structure” means the writing sounds stilted and lacks voice but has perfect transition words, then perhaps a workshop does lack structure. Writing workshops are not places where all students’ writing  sounds the same. And I say “Amen to that”. I tire of the comments about how students must “learn the rules before they break the rules,” or “they can get creative after they learn the structure of writing” or “that creative writing stuff is fine for elementary school but I have to get them ready for high school.”

Writing workshops I am lucky enough to visit are full of structures, routines, and expectations. Students in these workshops write with purpose and meaning. These are not “free-for-all” classrooms where writers are not held accountable to high standards. In fact, I find students hold themselves very accountable, even at kindergarten, when they care about their work and they aren’t just finishing their writing to please the teacher or to get a better grade.

Effective writing workshops are places where students, regardless of age, can confidently state: “Pretty much I’m already an author.”

 

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