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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Summer PD: Five Fundamentals for Creating a Positive Writing Atmosphere

Writers write. They never say they're "going to write." They write here, there, and everywhere. Professional writers usually stick to a schedule. But most writers write when they can, when life doesn't get in the way. Some write on napkins at the local diner or on a receipt using the steering wheel as a desk.

I'm writing part of this blog on my dining room table at 6:45 am, dressed and ready for school; my three-year-old is snoring on the couch in the living room and I'm trying to delay cleaning up the cat puke. That's my usual atmosphere when school is in session. No coffee shop, no fancy den, no oak desk with the dull glow of lamplight, just fifteen minutes to pound the keys.

I've been writing for quite some time so drafting most of my blogs in the shadow of the morning routine is no biggy. However, junior writers need more of an atmosphere to concentrate on the art of writing.

TIME + SPACE + CHOICE = REAL WRITING
---Barry Lane

1. Set a Time to Write and Stick to It!

Real writing needs real time. Hemingway once said, "Writing is long periods of thinking and short periods of writing." While I don't have the luxury of a regular writing time, our students absolutely need one.

Barry Lane, in his book But How Do You Teach Writing?, calls for a "regular and predictable writing time, which allows students to rehearse what they are going to write about in their heads, hours before it's time to write." Kids need that "heads up" when it comes to writing. Plus, it helps them focus on the events, thoughts, and curiosities in their life about which they can write. This is what Pulitzer Prize winner Don Murray calls "writing before writing."

In plain clothes, "writing before writing" is daydreaming. I spent most of my elementary school days daydreaming about what kind of battle I would create with my Star Wars figures when I got home. Playing with action figures is undoubtedly responsible for my ability to write today. I was writing every day of my life, just not on paper. Just imagine if I had the freedom and the time to write it down. Where would I be today? No matter how you slice it, writing is hard and kids need daily, uninterrupted time to mess up, scribble out, slash ideas, and find gold without the question of ". . . when will I get another chance?"

2. Writers in Spaaaaaace (Announced like "Pigs in Space")

I allow my students to write anywhere in the room their little heart fancies -- on their desk, under their desk, at a free desk/table, on the rug, lying down on the rug, in the corner, on a chair with a clipboard, next to the fish tank -- wherever! However, the key word in this whole paragraph is "write." Wherever they end up, they need to write. If not, students begin to lose mobility privileges. It's important to set precedent early in the year: "You have the freedom to move only if you intend to use your space efficiently." Oh, and I always allow my students to take off their footwear. We release heat from out heads and our feet. It's just a comfort thing (though maybe smelly).

3. Choose Your Tools Wisely

I present my students with a smorgasbord of writing tools in order for them to find comfort, which will promote writing confidence. And we all know what happens when a writer is confident: ***Poof! Super Duper Pow***!

I offer pens, erasable pens, pencils, mechanical pencils -- I honestly don't care what a student chooses as his writing weapon. I'll let a student write in blood if it makes him/her feel comfortable enough to take the risk. At least four different types of lined paper, a journal, blank paper, and a computer are on the menu. However, students do need to prove themselves worthy of using such tools. After observing some drafting, I will encourage (and sometimes require) certain students to use certain tools. It really depends on their fine motor skills and how efficient they are with certain types of lines and/or computers.

Note: Regardless of the tool they use, I heavily discourage students from erasing during the drafting process. We often chant in the beginning of the year, "No braking for erasing! No braking for erasing!" Erasing causes a burp in the thought process. Just keep going, man.

4. Modeling: Set Pure Tone

Jeffrey Wilhelm, professor of English education at Boise State University and the director of the Boise State Writing Project, believes that teachers need to write in order to teach writing. In his interview for the book, Teaching the Neglected "R", he clearly states that it's important for teachers to do the writing assignments they give students and then ask, "Would I do the work I'm asking my students to do?"

I spend a great deal of in-class modeling by writing in my journal or on my computer. This technique is a double-edged sword. It shows that I (teacher) value writing and it controls the sounds volume in the room.

If the idea of a writing workshop is new to your students they will feel a bit weird with the freedoms they just received and will probably . . .

a) talk
b) look for friends to sit next to and talk
c) hide in a corner and . . . you guessed it, talk.

My response? "Excuse me, but I can't concentrate when you're talking." Never fails. If you do this persistently and consistently, it will diffuse the talkers long enough for them to realize that, "Hey, this writing thing isn't so bad," and they'll stop talking because they'll be engaged in the writing process.

5. Embody the Writer's Attitude

I learned to write in my room, not in school. It's not a terrible way to hone your craft, but I often think how my writing life would be different if I had a mentor, a teacher, or a fellow writer as a child (other than my mom). Different, I presume.

My thoughts on how I became a writer resonate with Donald Murray's reflection on his life: "All the qualities that made me weird in my family, in school, on the street corner, the qualities that I usually tried to hide and was often ashamed of, were what made me the writer I am." I want you to remember that, brothers and sisters, the next time you just don't get a student.

I let the reins loose in the name of creative freedom and in the spirit of the education I wish I received. My ideas might not be right for you, but there's one point on which I guarantee we will agree. We both desire to inspire each and every student in our classrooms. We want them to come to the page with confidence, a feeling of ownership, and an attitude that blinks in neon lights: I can do this.

We both want them to want to write, right? What are some of your techniques to foster a writing atmosphere?

Summer Reading on Writing

On Writing Stephen King

But How Do You Teach Writing? Barry Lane

Crafting a Life in Essay, Story, and Poem Donald Murray

Teaching the Neglected "R" Thomas Newkirk and Richard Kent

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