We all know these writers: they may sit and stare at the blank page for ages, visit the bathroom for most of writing time, distract others, and even shed tears when asked to write. These are the dormant writers who keep us up at night worrying and wondering what we can do to help them believe in themselves and discover the power writing can bring to their lives. Try out these three teaching moves consistently across time, and watch amazing writers emerge.
1. Start with strengths.
When I ask young writers to tell me about their strengths and challenges in writing, they most often cling tightly to all they cannot do and overlook any strengths they have (this is also true of teachers!). Perhaps one of the reasons for this is because a writer, over years, hears mostly ways to fix his writing rather than comments about what is strong. We can help writers redefine themselves by naming what is working and the impact their writing already has.
What does this sound like? “When you explain the facts in your informational writing, the reader learns more.” Or “When you share the inner thinking of a character, you add a new dimension to the story.” Or “When you vary sentence structure, the writing flows.” When writers receive this from you they are able to recognize the skills they bring to writing, and then they are more likely to write. To make this especially powerful, avoid pairing strength-based feedback with fix-it feedback. In other words, try not to follow up naming a strength with naming what’s “wrong.” By taking this approach to feedback, your student writers will begin to redefine who they are, even admire their own writing voice, and are more likely to realize their power as writers.
2. Separate grades and feedback.
If day-to-day writing experiences are always graded, students shut down. Many struggling writers would rather choose not to write then lay their words out on the page to be judged and graded. As educator Katherine Bomer said, “Writing is the most vulnerable act expected from students in school. When we pair a grade with that feeling of vulnerability, many students remain writing-free as an act of self preservation.” Choose, then, to give feedback in a greater proportion than grades—I suggest 80% of the time giving feedback (that is not linked to a grade) and, if grading is a requirement, spend just 20% of the time giving grades. Be explicit to the students: let them know when you will be wearing your grading hat and when you will be giving meaningful feedback.
3. Celebrate struggle and share your own
If you have ever struggled in writing, this is your greatest gift as a teacher of writing. Look back at those times and notice what you did to work through those tangles of motivation, or stamina, or confidence, or focus, or organization. Share these unique brands of difficulty with the writers in your class, because it’s not always the same, single challenge. Do this by first normalizing the struggle that all writers face. Perhaps you might say, “You seem stuck right now. I have been there myself and here is what I’ve done.” You might also say, “Struggle is a wonderful gift. If you are struggling, it means you are about to learn something new.” When a young writer’s struggle is perceived as an asset, the writer emerges stronger than before.
Disengaged writers are really dormant writers — not actively growing at the moment. With a few powerful teaching moves from you this springtime, these writers begin to grow and unfurl the power of their own writing voice.