Abstract: When this author's students started telling their stories through writing, it was as if the floodgates opened: “Students who had used aggression or anger to express their every emotion saw that many others before them had used the tool of written language instead.” This article shows how helping students “find their voices” through writing can crack tough exteriors and help youth reconnect to school and themselves.
John came into my writing workshop in his high-top shoes “the heavy athletic kind “without laces, so they flopped on his feet like flippers. The backs were tromped down, and he had colored the tongues with a fluorescent orange marker. He didn’t wear socks, his pants were too short, and he was wearing a T-shirt even though the temperature was close to freezing. Boasting that he didn’t need a jacket, he rubbed his skinny arms and said he was cold. His dark curly hair was wild, uncut, and uncombed. His glasses were askew, and he looked at me through the bottoms of the lenses as he tipped his head back and spit out a greeting.
I could read parts of his past in his face “growing up in a troubled family, no money, not enough to eat, no new clothes, probably not even a notebook when school started. He had been teased, had no friends. I learned later that his family moved frequently, often to trailer parks or campgrounds where they would live in tents for months. School had been torture for John, and I was going to pay for it. When I spoke to him, he usually re sponded with a scowl, “So what?” or “I don’t care.” But sometimes he would form his hands into cat’s claws and hiss at me to show that he would have none of me, my smooth talk, or my games designed to seduce him into an education. He was a master at keeping everyone away.
John was as angry about the writing workshop as he was about everything else in his world. He hated it. He hated writing. He had nothing to say. He sat solemnly at his desk, searching for an opportunity to make trouble with classmates sitting near him. He refused to let anyone read his work and promptly shredded and dropped on the floor the folders I gave him to keep his papers in. He stated over and over, “This class sucks.”
John loved the computer, though, and would spend as much time as possible sitting behind one, glowering at anyone who came too close. Once he told me he was writing a story about a dysfunctional family where the dad hit the children all the time and there wasn’t any love. “It’s all from my imagination, you know,” he told me. Eventually, he would ask my advice about a line or a punctuation mark, or have me listen to something he was writing. He always cocked his head to the side, looked at me through the bottoms of his glasses, and said “Hmmm” when I answered.
One day, he approached my desk warily. “Do you want
to read my poem?” he asked. He didn’t slide away this time, but stood
near me as I took his poem and read it. I don’t remember any
of the exact words or even the title. But the meaning of the poem and that moment are crystal clear in my memory. He had written a four-stanza poem about the hole in his life, about
what was missing and where it had gone. At the end of each stanza, he asked the question, “Will it ever be filled up?”
John wrote about the way he viewed the world and how
he felt about his place in it. His poems spoke of the things he felt
were wrong with him and wrong with his life, as in There’s Some-
There’s something missing
there is an empty place where
it should be,
but I can’t
to fill it.
I have looked
at myself and
wrong with me?”
but still there
is a space
that I cannot fill.
maybe I'll find it someday
maybe I'll fill
but until then
what can it be?
Finding a voice
For me, helping John and other students reveal themselves through writing was not a short or easy journey. I had been a teacher for 20 years and was accustomed to spending much of my time at the front of the room, making most of the decisions about what students were writing in my class. Then I started reading about writing workshop formats like Nancie Atwell’s (1987) and the writing process. I learned that U.S. high school students spend less than two percent of a typical school day reading and writing, although they can only improve these skills by spending regular, extended periods of time practicing them (Goodlad, 1984).
I knew that part of helping my students become writers would be helping them connect with their “voices.” Thus, when I first moved to a writing workshop format, one of my top priorities was to allow students to choose their own topics and the kinds of writing they did in class. But many students protested, “l don’t have anything to write about!” I resisted the temptation to give them something from my stockpile of teacher-created topics. Instead, we had writing conferences where we explored the things they had been thinking about, things that had troubled them, and events or people from their lives that they remembered clearly. I tried to find a way to help them put their own stories into words. Students eventually learned that this process is what all writers do, whether they are writing a letter to the editor or a novel. All writers begin by finding a topic.
Although finding that voice was the most difficult, critical part of the writing process, it was also the most powerful. As students discovered that they had things to say and a way to say them, it was as if the floodgates opened. Students who had used aggression or anger to express their every emotion saw that many others before them had used the tool of written language instead. They found that writing about something helped them not only to sort it out, but also to put it into perspective. Some ideas lost power when they were written down, some gained power, but as Natalie Goldberg (1993) says in Writing the Landscape of Your Mind, “nobody ever died from writing it down.”
This shift was especially difficult in the special education school where I teach, due to my students” lack of confidence in their academic abilities. When encouraged to make decisions based on what they cared about, they drew a blank. School had not been the scene of success for them in the past, and many were not about to take a risk like this. But like all of us, these troubled adolescents had stories to tell “stories of rejection by family, loss of friends, ordeals with the court system, abuse at the hands of biological or foster parents, abandonment, uncertainty about where they would be living, and death. Encouraging them to incorporate their life experiences into their writing was the most compassionate and effective way to promote their growth as writers.
For example, Dennis’s father had died, leaving him to struggle with grief along with other factors that eventually brought him to residential treatment. Dennis was able to find a voice for some of his feelings when he wrote this poem:
T0 let g0
Dad, when you passed away
part of my childhood went
Because of the choices you made
most of my memories are vague.
Dad, I wish I could give you
part of my life.
But I can’t.
I just wish
that I could see you again.
Dad, I love you.
The writing process
The writing workshop format I adopted for my class facilitated many of these student breakthroughs. This format segmented the writing process into a number of stages:
Warm-up session. I started each writing workshop with a IO- minute warm-up session to get the words flowing onto the paper. Students were encouraged to use their own idea lists to find topics for warm-up, but we talked about how what they wrote during this time was not as important as the simple exercise of writing. I usually wrote along with my students, and we spent the last few minutes of the warm-up time sharing pieces of what we had produced. These pieces often provided seeds for future writing projects.
Status of the class. Many of my students needed a lot of structure and guidance in the workshop, especially at first. So I used a status-of-the-class procedure daily, during which students reported the titles of the pieces they were working on and what stage they were in (e. g., first draft, second draft, self-editing, etc.). I reviewed these status self-reports at the end of the week and guided students who were not making progress toward set goals and due dates.
Mini-lesson on aspects of writing. After the writing warm-up, I taught a 20-minute mini-lesson on some aspect of writing, like using quotation marks, writing a good lead, or adding sensory details. Sometimes we examined the writing of a professional like Paul Gruchow’s Journal of a Prairie Year or Jim Heynen's One Room Schoolhouse, looking for writing traits. The six-trait writing model I adapted from Vicki Spandel and Richard Stiggens (1997) also provided a wealth of material for mini-lessons: idea development, voice, organization, sentence fluency, word choice, and conventions/mechanics. But in choosing mini-lesson topics, I was always guided by the needs of the students, not by a rigid scope and sequence curriculum.
Creating a first draft. After students settled on a topic, they worked on a first draft. I made sure they knew that content was the most important thing at this initial stage, whether they were writing a poem, a personal narrative, or a letter to a family member. They worked hard at ignoring what Natalie Goldberg calls the “monkey mind,” or the editor inside all of us who tells us our work is not good enough, that we cannot spell well enough to be a writer, or that we really should not be writing about this subject.
Self-assessment. An important part of Spandel and Stiggens” six-trait model was teaching students to assess their own writing and make revisions based on criteria for each trait. As we looked at professional and student examples of writing, and talked about what made them work and what could make them better, students began to see that all writing is a process of revision in order to have the greatest possible impact on the reader.
Conferring. Students worked together during
many of the steps in the writing process. It was important for them to
hear from other readers “their peers “whether or not their pieces said
what they wanted them to say. Atwell calls this part of the process “conferring,” and it was not an easy one to learn. Everyone (including myself) wanted to slip back into the mode where the teacher circles the errors and the student corrects them. The conferring step was critical, though, as it helped us reflect on what we had written and ultimately improve it as a result.
Self-editing. After many self-assessments and a lot of conferring, the next step was self-editing. No matter what their skill levels, students worked on editing their papers themselves by looking for spelling, grammar, punctuation, and capitalization mistakes. They leamed to use the spell-checker on the computer to self-edit, they kept a list of frequently misspelled words to check, and they were responsible for using skills they had learned during previous writing lessons in future works.
Teacher-editing. After they had self-edited, students let me edit their work, and we met for a conference. I chose only two or three things to point out and teach, like spelling mistakes to add to their personal spelling lists, a way to use quotation marks more effectively, how to divide a piece into paragraphs, or a suggestion for a more interesting conclusion. At this conference, I also pointed out the things they were doing well. All the skills “the ones they already knew and the ones they learned “were documented on a writing conference report to provide a record of their progress.
Preparing a final copy. After their work
was teacher-edited, students prepared a final copy to be kept, along
with all drafts, in their permanent writing folders. This folder was yet
another record of their efforts to become better writers. Some students
preferred to do these final drafts in handwritten form, but many were
eager to use the computer. The computer proved to be a valuable
motivator for writing, keeping all drafts on disks (easier than keeping
paper copies in a folder), editing, and producing and publishing final
drafts. Students who were resistant to editing for errors because it
meant handwriting another draft now were willing and sometimes even
anxious to use the spell-checker or to have me or another student read
their work in progress. Students who saw no value in saving all copies
of their written work now felt pride when they saw
the accumulation of documents on their own computer diskettes. Above all, no one was embarrassed by poor penmanship. All drafts from the printer look professional.
Posting and publishing their work. Research shows that writing for a real audience, not just a teacher, is an important part of the writing process. Students in my class were encouraged to post their work on a student writing bulletin board and often requested copies of their writing to send to family members. A binder on the writing table had information on periodicals that publish student writing, and many mini-lessons were about the various ways that writers find audiences for their work. Some students asked to have their work laminated to keep it safe, and we frequently published student writing in our school newsletter. One student volunteered to put together a book of poetry with submissions by many classmates and teachers.
Reading their writing. At the end of the first quarter writing workshop, students requested a class period to read their work to the other members of the class. Although it was a risk for many, even students who were reluctant to answer questions or read aloud in class were willing to participate. They treated the reading as a solemn occasion, posting notices around the school, and serving refreshments at the event. The readers sat in a rocking chair in the front of the room, and each one received a round of applause and encouraging comments from the audience. Many times since then, students have requested time to read their writing when they feel they need an audience for their work.
Writing changes hearts and spirits
Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird, inspired me when I needed encouragement for writing workshops. She says, “Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation .... [They give us] a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship” (p. 237).
Anne Lamott’s beliefs confirm what I have learned through my own work with adolescents: that teaching kids about anger management, relationships, and self-esteem do not have to be separate courses or programs delivered in little pieces apart from their real lives. The things we want kids to know about becoming healthy, happy human beings can be an integral part of the way we teach them about language and communication. Learning to write can be a way out of the shadows for them “a way for them to regain a sense of control and find a voice.
Possibly my most reluctant English student ever, Steve brought me his last piece of the semester. He had read an article about trapping mink and had written a two-page summary. There were a few mistakes, but it was the writing of a student who had confidence in his ability to use written language. He pointed out that it was quite a contrast to his first written work last year “a piece with four sentences, many spelling errors, and no capital letters. He had learned many writing skills in the past year, but more important, he had learned that reading and writing are not just for English teachers and honor roll students. Language can be a tool for him to use for the most basic of human needs: documenting his thoughts, hopes, fears, and dreams, and communicating them with other people.
The perspective of a poet
At the beginning of the year, John's melancholy words described his pain and isolation. He continued writing poetry saying all the things he had been unable or unwilling to say “that the people closest to him had hurt him, that he was afraid of his past, that his future terrified him. Most of his early poems were beautifully articulated, but were melancholy, reflective, solemn, and mournful. He usually entered the class and sat down to write without speaking to anyone.
But John's progress as a writer mirrored his
emotional growth and the development of his relationships with adults in
school. By the end of the year, John had published a book of his poems
on the school computer, published a poem on an Internet website for
student writing, and handed out autographed copies of his writing to
everyone in school. Two years later, he called to
let me know he is still writing. These are the words he used to describe how he sees the world now that he is a writer:
The perspective of a poet on the world
I love the world.
Everything has something to tell.
I see the world as a breathtaking rhythmic poem.
I show how I feel with dramatic images and words.
I see every day as a new poem waiting to happen.
Everything has something to tell.
I love the world.
Atwell, N. (1987). Reading and writing in the middle. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.
Goldberg, N. (1993). Writing the landscape of your mind. Austin, TX: The Writer’s Audio Shop.
Goodlad, J. (1984). A place called school. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Gruchow, P. (1985). Journal of a prairie year. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Heynen, J. (1993). One room schoolhouse. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Lamott, A. (1994). Bird by bird. New York: Doubleday.
Spandel, V. and Stiggens, R. J. (1997). Creating writers: Linking writing assessment and instruction. New York: Addison Wesley Longman.
This feature: Skramstad, T. (1998). Reaching resistant youth through writing. Reaching Today's Youth, 2, 4. pp. 20-24.