The Writing Classroom: Lighting the Spark

I have a brother-in-law who makes a spreadsheet whenever he has a project: “It’s how I think." Interesting, though I confess that doesn’t work for me. I find that ideas are best grasped through metaphors, so here goes:

Teaching writing is like making a fire. You can add all the firewood you want, but unless you leave space for air, the fire will sputter and go out. In the writing classroom the “air” consists of choice, voice, pleasure and play. Those essential conditions make the fire crackle.

What does that look like in practice?

When my youngest son was in fourth grade he had two teachers: Steve Tullar and Pete Schiat. Pete was a retired merchant marine sailor who had come to teaching as a second career. Steve and Pete invented a genre they called Nature’s Eye, where kids could write about the natural world using prose poetry. Using this form, the kids really took off (especially the boys) and got jazzed about writing. Parents were invited to numerous events to hear the kids share what they had written. As soon as you walked in you could feel the energy and passion in that classroom. The kids were invested. 

How did Steve and Pete do it? I think it was a combination of factors:

  • Passionate teachers who were genuinely interested in what the kids had to say. Having male teachers signaled to the boys that writing could be for girls and boys. 

  • A genre that was accessible.

  • A supportive audience.

In a larger sense, the conditions in that classroom embody the elements highlighted in the subtitle of my new book The Writing Teacher’s Companion: Embracing Choice, Voice, Purpose & Play.

Let’s briefly explore them, one by one. 

Choice

Don Graves encouraged teachers to let kids bring their obsessions into their writing. Amen. Kids need to feel empowered to write about what matters to them. And they have to know deep down that they will be received and accepted.

It’s no secret that choice is getting squeezed out of today’s writing classroom. Too often, young writers get funneled into a particular genre (often a persuasive essay), told what to write about, and what elements the writing must include. Where’s the choice?

Don’t despair if the energy in your writing classroom feels lethargic. The best single way I know to energize it is to encourage your students to write about what matters to them. Give them real choice, and get out of the way.

Voice

Voice is the quality in writing that reflects that author’s personality, character, or attitude. All of us are different, so voice in writing is as unique as fingerprints

Is voice related to choice? Most certainly! We need to create classrooms where young writers have the time, space, and support to find their individual voices as writers. 

Purpose

We write for many different reasons: to remember, react, ruminate (perhaps in a writer’s notebook), communicate, goof around, create literature, tell a story, and so on. The classroom should be a place where kids can experience these various purposes. In a writing conference we can ask—“What are you trying to do in this piece of writing?”—not in a skeptical way, but as curious readers. 

Play

Play is an essential part of what writers do when they sit down to write. An essay about fracking might begin with a dash of wordplay: “Fracking is controversial topic that has been drilling into people’s consciousness in recent years..." We must encourage kids to play when they write, and try to be generous when their playful attempts don’t always work (as they often do not).

I would add one more essential condition:

Pleasure

I write because it’s fun. I enjoy it. If I didn’t enjoy writing (at least most of the time), I wouldn’t be a writer. Let’s do whatever we can to create classrooms, like the one created by Steve and Pete, where kids can say: “Writing is a blast. I can’t wait for our next chance to write.”