This blog was written by member Ashley Lamb Sinclair.
As a practicing writer for several years and a wannabe writer since birth, taking off my teacher hat recently and replacing it with a writer hat has caused me to doubt the entire image of “all-knowing teacher who teaches beginning writers.” I now know that the purpose of writing in school is to help students become more aware of the writers they already are.
Prior to my own writing life, I would have talked to students about plot diagrams or referred to their hand-me-down graphic organizers dusted off from some file cabinet. Since writing for publication myself, I now view student writers’ ideas as the raw material that, writer to writer, we both work to solder into something more sturdy.
Truth be told, this was surprising at first; my expectation was that I was to teach and students were to learn, but in the process, we became partners.
So what does this epiphany mean for a teacher of writing? Here are some lessons my experiences as a writer-teacher have taught me about teaching young writers.
Regardless of Age, Every Writer’s Ideas Have Value
Once during my creative writing class, I tried to force all of my students to write a story about fashion. Yes, fashion.
I did this because we had read a story about a magical coat and because I had my own idea for writing about an important blue dress for a female character. Reading the story was a fine task for students. Writing the story I planned to write was a fine task for me. But forcing an idea on thirty other writers was not beneficial for any of us.
A handful of students took to the idea and wrote perfectly fine stories. Most of them cranked out something to turn in to me, some of it okay, much of it not. The problem was that I took away their right to their own ideas from the very beginning. The message I sent was that my idea was better than theirs, as opposed to inviting their ideas, which would have engaged and excited them rather than left them trudging through the assignment half-heartedly.
This was a group of students who enjoyed writing enough to sign up for a creative writing elective. How many times do we do this to reluctant writers, too, in an effort to support them?
I frequently write essays for publication now, and as I’ve become a more practiced essayist, I have been ashamed of how much I restricted my students over the years in a misguided effort to help them.
As a writer, I don’t begin with a thesis formula. I don’t fill in blanks in a generic outline. And I often don’t write full completed drafts, revise them, formally peer-review them, and rewrite them. I usually have an idea, I root it in an experience or a text or historical event, then I draft. Then I stop drafting, do something else like read a book, watch a film, or talk to people about the idea, and then I come back to it—sometimes right away, sometimes many months or even years later. I keep a folder in Google—a portfolio, if you will—of drafts I’ve started, lists of ideas, cuts from pieces that didn’t work in one draft but could work in a future one, and full pieces of which I’m proud.
The bottom line: My ideas generate my process, not the other way around.
Put Away the Old Tools and Tricks
Sometimes writing teachers, in an effort to support young writers, can stifle them with too many tools and tricks. I have been guilty of telling students exactly what to write and how to write it by forcing topics, outlines, rules, and rubrics on them, while in my own writing life, I actually just begin with a blank page, something to write with (pen or keyboard), and some stimulus for inspiration—maybe a story from NPR, an interesting statistic, a philosophical concept, or something I’m afraid of.
My first published short story, called “Down by the River,” was inspired by a single statistic about the birth rate of baby boys. Another story I wrote while planning my wedding was about a new bride who comes home to an empty apartment piled with wedding gifts after losing her husband on her honeymoon. Yet another came from an anecdote my grandmother told me about accidentally buying an empty can of green beans from the grocery store.
Every piece I’ve written has been sparked by the world around me, and then I just write, talking about it to others and tweaking it here and there until it feels done. Sometimes it’s done when the plot ends, sometimes it’s done when I have nothing left to write.
I know now that young writers, too, can benefit from the experience of building a piece of writing through thinking, talking, drafting, and reflecting.
Teachers of Writing Need to Participate in the Writing Process—Every Part of It
I’ve always been a writer. Even when I wasn’t actively writing, I have been a writer from a young age. I wrote yarn-bound books from notebook paper and told stories for as long as I can remember, and in college, I could crank out essays with an ease that made me the envy of the dorm. So I approached the teaching of writing a bit arrogantly in the first years of my career. Of course I knew how to teach writing.
But after a few years, I participated in the National Writing Project Summer Institute, which operates under the philosophy that teachers of writing should write themselves.
This was truly transformative for me. I started writing a novel during that summer and spent the next four years working on it. All the while, I slowly started to shift the way I taught writing. I started talking with my students openly about my process. I shared excerpts from my own writing with them. I continuously modified old outlines and formats for peer review, never really settling or feeling satisfied with the results, although I know students benefited from the changes.
Then, when I became a published writer who interacted with editors on various platforms, I started to become more intentional about my own writing process and how I taught writing to students. For example, last year I taught argument to sophomores. Prior to last year, I focused on classic and Toulmin-style argumentation—which definitely is a worthwhile pursuit and did produce results. But after writing for national publications, I started to see a pattern in terms of which pieces were accepted, which were rejected, and which ones resonated most with the audience.
Time after time, the most successful pieces were those in which I told a story and connected it to an argument I wanted to make.
This realization led me to create a new outline for my students. I created a simple T-chart, and wrote “Narrative” on the top left side and “Argument” on the top right. We studied pieces from the New York Times and the Washington Post, including one written by me in which I discussed with students my process from idea to publication. We broke down the pieces into those two categories and discussed the importance of each part: Does it serve as evidence? Is it meant to develop character?
Then when it came time for students to write their own narrative arguments, they started with their own stories, connecting them to something they cared for and could make an argument about.
Again those pieces were better than usual. But even more importantly, the students told me how good it felt to write in that way. It gave them a new perspective on essay writing, so when they are faced with a prompt or a blank page next time, they can start with what they know. I wouldn’t have come to this way of teaching writing had I not discovered it for myself.
The Writing Classroom Should Be One of Collaboration
When I actually put words on the page, I do it alone. But the words and ideas do not come from me alone. I’ve developed my own system for managing ideas and drafts in Google, but I also have a system that happens outside the actual writing process. I have collaborators—some colleagues, some friends, some writers I’ve met in person, and some I’ve met only on the page or screen. The piece might have my name on it because I was the one who put it together, but it does not solely belong to me.
Our students, though, are often asked to write without ever having the chance to talk through their ideas.
Sometimes we’ll tack on a single peer-review session at the end of the process, usually a regimented structure regulated by a rubric or planning sheet, but we usually expect the writer to work in isolation. Granted, managing a classroom of young writers often requires some type of structure, but the structure may benefit the teacher and the classroom culture more than it benefits the student writer. One only need to do an online search for local writers’ groups to be reminded that many writers crave, and are nourished by, collaboration and feedback.
Clearly we need our writing classrooms to be writing communities, and we need to build writing partnerships within them.
In the end, I know that student ideas have fueled my own, and I hope that along the way I have learned how to better help them arrive at the stories that matter most to them. And I hope for the same love and passion around writing for every writing teacher out there.
Ashley Lamb-Sinclair has been an educator for 13 years and was the 2016 Kentucky Teacher of the Year. She is the Founder and CEO of Curio Learning, an online space for teachers to discover, curate, and collaborate around creative ideas. She writes for the Atlantic and the Washington Post, among other publications.