Where Have I Been? Joy Writing With Them (Part 1)

Mission: Find Joy

I started to write this post and something distracted me. I looked at my calendar and then back to my blog post. Calendar-blog-calendar-blog. Where did the month of May go? I am amazed at the utter loss of time and also trying to balance that feeling that almost all teachers I know get in the month of May. You know the feeling. We look at each other with empathy. We make jokes. We give words of wisdom on social media and to each other in person. We try to see the light at the end of the tunnel that is summer. However, especially with state testing in May for many of us, it can get difficult to find joy. 

But, I found some on the last day of April. Right before I started in on my plan to attack the month of May and get through state testing alive. It was on a Sunday, and I was scrolling through my phone and some older emails came through from another writing teacher I follow, Buffy Hamilton. Her blog, The Unquiet Librarian, is a retreat where I can peer into another writing teacher's classroom and get ideas to share with others. I found these ideas on this Sunday when I settled into her post Joy. Writers. After reading this post, I immediately threw out my plan that I was going to do for the month of May and the hole of time before testing on May 10 and decided I needed a new game plan.

Now, I had a plan before. I had a great plan. However, it lacked joy. Often, teachers forget that our enthusiasm is what directs our classroom. If we aren't excited and pumped up to learn, how can we ever expect them to be? I keep this quote behind my desk at all times:

 

“I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.” -Haim Ginott

I often use this quote when I present on classroom management, and it also implies incredibly to the energy we put into our classrooms on a daily basis. This is one of the reasons I named my blog Writing Mindset because I wanted people to think about writing, to think about how they teach writing, and to think about the impact of writing in their own lives. I also hold on to a quote from Rita Pierson that says, "You know kids don't learn from people they don't like." I want my students to like being in my room. They don't have to necessarily always like me, but it is my job to make sure that the mood that is set in my room is one of safety, respect, love, and joy. 

So, I found this message within the pages of Joy Write by Ralph Fletcher. I loved the idea of Greenbelt Writing. Fletcher identifies Greenbelt Writing as, "Writing that is raw, unmanicured, uncurated" (39). The writing teacher in me got excited as I pictured my students taking up their pens and pencils with energy and immediately gazing off into the distance with tongues sticking out thinking of their next amazing idea. But, the other writing teacher in me paused. The keeper of the feedback raised one eyebrow in response to leaving them alone. 

I told the eyebrow to stay down as I kept reading. Fletcher says, "A greenbelt doesn't have to be managed. Indeed, its very wildness is its virtue. The same principal holds true for greenbelt writing. We need to recognize its value, establish its sovereignty, and then get out of the way-leave it alone" (41). I love feedback. I am almost obsessed with the idea of feedback so much so that it drives one of the reasons I love to teach writing. I love seeing a page filled with ink. I am the ink queen. I strive on a daily basis to find more ways to give feedback-both written and verbal-to students about their writing. Often, I will chase myself into a burnt out circle of trying to give more feedback. So, simply put, the feedback queen in me was intrigued about this idea of "leave them alone." 

I do this already in a smaller form of "Friday Free Write." But, my students know that Friday Free Write is safe. They can choose their own writing without any input from me. So, what if the large summative assessments that involve writing also involved this form of freedom? Our curriculum pacing guide is setup with a paper and a novel per six week marking period. I got to thinking about five-paragraph essays. Then I decided I would want that freedom. They would most certainly want that freedom. I determined to let them have that freedom especially during high-stakes testing season. Let's find some joy. Let's find some joy that does not hold the same expectation as third person only, vary sentence length, and stick to the structure type of pressure. Let's joy write. 

Project Setup

I first setup a Gallery Walk using Kagan structures. I wanted students to share their ideas for writing projects to get struggling writers a.) up and moving and b.)getting some ideas going. I loved the idea that Buffy had of giving them freedom, but with some help as to where to start. As writing teachers, it is important to be aware that writing can be intimidating and sometimes we just need a starting place. I am not sure if Fletcher would agree with these parameters, but I felt okay because the idea of choice was still maintained. 

Options at this station: 

Poetry: free-verse or using a structure, if you are interested in poetry but do not know where to start, see Mrs. Hampton
Completely made-up story about any topic

  • Horror
  • Action
  • Crime
  • Fantasy
  • Realistic Fiction
  • Comedy
  • Romance
  • Mystery

Script for a movie or film
Fairytale
Spin-off of your favorite book
Greek mythology tale
 

Options at this station:

Curiosity research project (like our first research papers)
How-To Guide
Lab Report (complete an experiment)
Problem-solution paper
Making a claim about a historical event
Defining a word
Book review/report
History of…(insert idea here)
Travel guide writing (about a specific place you want to go to)
 

Options at this station:

Opinion piece
Take a stand against something
Debate on paper
Fighting unfairness with logic
 

Options at this station:

Biography of your life
Memoir (smaller chunk of memory)
Moment of learning
Big turning point in life
Favorite place
Favorite object
Tribute to a person in your life
Valuable advice to others
 

The Logistics

I also wanted them to be able to share their work in a way that would be easy to get and provide feedback. Buffy had used Kidblog to post student work, and I wanted to try it out. Students immediately took to the platform. They really liked the idea of changing their own font and background, and also to be able to upload their own images to their posts. My own caveat of using Kidblog is that I would love for them to be able to collaborate on one blog post together. If working in partners, they had to write on a Google Doc in order to write together and then post as one. This was only a minor complaint because I love every single other feature of the platform.

The only stipulations or rules I had on their writing were as follows:

  1. If writing in pairs, share the load. 
  2. All work must be posted to the blog by the assigned due date for feedback. 
  3. All comments must be on topic, thoughtful, and dare I say, thought-provoking!
  4. For your two projects, you have to choose two separate genres. I don't care which ones you choose. 
  5. Make a game plan for your writing if you are stuck. 

I had writing graphic organizers handy in case my struggling writers didn't know where to begin. And yes, the station colors match. 

The Outcome

Students came up with ideas, talked with others about their ideas, and finally submitted their ideas to me. Then they were off to the races. I let them listen to music while writing because that is what I do while I'm writing and I gave them time to write. Repeatedly. It was eerie looking at them with such self-motivation for a project that it felt odd walking around the room. I was definitely needed for conferencing, but I also strangely felt not-needed. Joy fused with independence. It was amazing that when they were allowed to choose their own style of writing, they also became fiercely independent. Here are some comments I heard throughout the first 3 days:

"Mrs. Hampton, are we working on our blogs today?"

"I want to work with someone on a project. Can you help me find a partner?"

"Read the first few lines of my story! Nobody will expect this!"

"I think people should know what I am writing about"

This project and my students have shown me that they just want the time to write. They want the choice to write about what they want to write about. Not one student did I have to urge to write or get back on track. Not one issue with behavior or resistance to the lesson. Not a single one. I didn't even have my usual sleepy first hour students dozing. They were up, buzzing with energy, and ready to go. I don't give many reminders for behavior in my room, but it was also enjoyable to not have to do it a single time during the course of project drafting. What joy to be able to write together without a reprimand! We were simply a room full of writers...writing.  

I am looking forward to our first commenting session this week with my 77 General English 6 students. Stay tuned. 

Writing Mindset Reflection: In what ways can we give student writers more choice? How important is choice in academic AND creative writing?

PS. Thanks Buffy.