I remember very well the pressure of trying to address 80-plus standards in 180 days with snow, sickness, and field trip days. This is to say nothing of the challenges that English language arts (ELA) educators face in our current time, including disruptions in instruction due to the pandemic. With so much going on, it can be easy to sweep writing under the rug as an add-on in a series of to-do’s when there is so much to cover in the world of reading.
This post addresses the question of how to meaningfully include writing instruction with all of the demands that are part of ELA curriculum. I’m inspired by Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle’s work in 180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents and their words about making certain that teaching literacy is an enlivened set of practices in the classroom.
To be honest, I can’t imagine teaching reading without writing. These processes are so instrumental to each other that I have trouble separating them. Writing is a chance to check in on what students know, hear from the voices that are too afraid to speak up in class, and engage in writing not just as a task of rigor but also as a process that encompasses composition and creativity. Adolescents have a lot to say and process about the world around them, and I would contend that instruction that doesn’t include writing cuts off valuable branches of literacy practice.
Make Time for Writing
Do I have time for this? Writing needn’t be a long exercise. I used to think that teaching writing had to be an overwrought process of going through the multiple steps in composing essays. Now, I think about writing in a variety of ways—on-the-spot responses, short jottings, and even doodle notes all count as writing. While responding in long form has its place, writing doesn’t always have to take up large amounts of time, in either the instruction or grading processes. A swift response can take place in a matter of moments.
To that end, I also recommend that teachers think carefully through the feedback they want to share on longer written pieces to prioritize time, selecting both positive elements to highlight and one or two areas of refinement. This is important in terms of self-care for the teacher so that not every writing exercise turns into a need to correct every part of writing, but it is also encouraging for the student.
Reconsider What Counts as Writing
During the pandemic, I’ve had the experience of working with young writers online, alongside colleagues, in developing digital writing. I think about the amazing opportunities for writing that students now have with social media apps and digital content, and the ready invitation to a wider audience.
While this access to an audience is often framed in a negative way, I see powerful possibilities for helping students see themselves as published authors. I also rethink writing as not simply a process that prioritizes words, but a way of sharing meaning across video, gestures, images, and sound.
Sites like Wix and Blogspot are open-access publishing places that can be explored. My love of comics and digital literacy no doubt inspires this move. This positioning of the image and digital alongside print can open avenues for students who may be striving with how to use the written word or may be persons with diverse abilities (e.g., nonverbal students, students with cerebral palsy, and more).
I also want to say a word here about the powerful nature of stories and celebrate the works of authors and scholars of often-minoritized communities, works that are great sources of inspiration to encourage student writing:
Novels and memoirs
- Jerry Craft, New Kid; Class Act
- Bill Konigsberg, The Bridge; The Music of What Happens
- Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe; Last Night I Sang to the Monster
- Elizabeth Acevedo, The Poet X; With the Fire on High
- Kelly Yang, Front Desk; Parachutes
- George M. Johnson, All Boys Aren’t Blue; We Are Not Broken
- Renée Watson, Ways to Make Sunshine; This Side of Home
- Stephanie Renee Toliver, “‘We Wouldn’t Have the Same Connection’: Using Read-Alouds to Build Community with Black Girls,” Voices From the Middle
- Caitlyn L. Ryan, “LGBTQ Topics in Elementary Education, Research, and Practice,” Theory Into Practice
- Adam Crawley, “Opportunities Lost and Found: A Gay Educator’s Grief and Process of Hope”
- Bree Picower, Reading, Writing and Racism: Disrupting Whiteness in Teacher Education and in the Classroom
- Betina Hsieh, “Countering Asian-American Invisibility in Schools” and “Anti-Asian American Racism Didn’t Go Away: Educators’ Support Is More Important Than Ever”
- Detra Price-Dennis and Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz, Advancing Racial Literacies in Teacher Education: Activism for Equity in Digital Spaces
- Gloria Ladson-Billings, The Dream Keepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children
- Bettina Love, We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom
The ways that we compose absolutely count and are valuable for young children and adolescents to encounter. What’s more, there is no voice that should be silenced in classroom practice. All composing and all voices count. I may not be able to speak to every experience as an educator, but I can be a signpost to those who can.
Think About Adaptations
As a final tip, I recommend having students transpose and create new texts and adaptations in response to readings. Sharing a graphic novel or reader’s theater rendition of a text gives students a natural invitation to return to text often, building reading skills, but also makes for a memorable writing experience.
One of my favorite classroom stories of using this method was when my students read Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and adapted scenes to a comics format. This was before the beautiful graphic novel rendition by Hope Larson. These days, I would use both the L’Engle and Larson texts to work with students and to invite adaptations, with comparisons to Larson’s work so that students could see the ways their thinking aligned with or was different from the illustrations in the graphic novel.
In short, I don’t think enough can be said about the power of writing and helping students see themselves as readers—and as responders. Students are creators, and the tools we have now provide unprecedented access and ability for all students. Writing and composing need not be a burden or dreadful encounter in the classroom—instead, I encourage teachers and students to celebrate the beauty that is made possible when they share stories with the world in the print and digital amber of the page.