“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
― Maya Angelou
When we teach writing in our classrooms, we’re presented with the perfect opportunity to allow our students to tell the untold stories. In order to tell these stories—whether they are through fiction or nonfiction—students need practice writing, everyday.
The Common Core State Standards say, “Each year in their writing, students should demonstrate increasing sophistication in all aspects of language use, from vocabulary and syntax to the development and organization of ideas, and they should address increasingly demanding content and sources.”
Without practicing writing everyday—with different prompts and for different audiences—our students won’t achieve this.
When I think about writing, I think about exercise. If my ultimate goal is to get in shape, then I have to work at it almost every day. I have to run on the treadmill or use the rowing machine. I have to use weights or resistance bands. I have to mix it up to reach my maximum fitness level.
Likewise, students need to write quick writes, journals, rough drafts that never go anywhere, process pieces, blogs, and letters—writing in many forms, and for many audiences.
Last summer, I led a four-day summer writing institute for high school students. This summer, that institute will extend to three weeks. In designing the institute, my goal was to present the students with powerful mentor texts that would spark their own ideas and unlock their untold stories.
I’m thankful to Dr. Alfred Tatum for his work in this area through his African American Male Summer Literacy Institute. I read Dr. Tatum’s book Reading for Their Life: (Re)Building the Textual Lineages of African American Males and then was privileged to visit his summer institute for two days.
The first day I was there, lunch was announced to this room of fifteen young men and not a single one moved. They were so engrossed in their writing that not a single one wanted to leave his work to stop and eat.
As a veteran teacher of teens and a mom of four boys, I was amazed! That’s powerful.
When we think about our own classrooms, are our students engaged in their writing? That’s what I wanted to achieve in our summer writing institute.
My Summer Writing Institute:
Last year, on the first day, we set up our writing community, started writer’s notebooks, read some powerful mentor texts, and then it was time to write. The students all looked at me and said, “What do we write?” They were paralyzed by the thought that there was no prompt, no word minimum or limit, no assigned genre.
I had prepared for potential moments like this, so I handed out a sample autobiopoem frame and a list of thought-provoking questions. Instantaneously, ten pens and pencils began flying across the paper. This was “writing” they were comfortable with—fill in the blanks and answering questions.
The next day, we talked about what had happened. They were dumbfounded by the idea that I was telling them that not all writing was assigned, and that writing is an act of telling our stories, sharing ideas, and that we need to best understand our audience and purpose in order to choose the form our writing takes. Then we took a break from writing to visit with author Sharon Flake via Skype.
Sharon’s insights about what it means to be a writer only cemented for the students what we had talked about earlier that morning. And then, we had that moment much like the moment I witnessed with the young men in Dr. Tatum’s group. One student raised her hand and asked, “Would it be okay if we just wrote for the rest of the time?” Heads around the room bobbed in affirmation. In that moment, these students became writers.
This summer, we’ll have fifteen days to become writers. We’ll address 10-12 Common Core State Standards. We’ll write narratives using effective technique, produce clear and coherent writing, use technology to publish writing, analyze point of view, demonstrate command of conventions, and understand figurative language. And we’ll do this by understanding our audience and our purpose, by studying different genres, and how we can tell our stories and share our ideas in multiple ways.
Why the extension of four days to fifteen? Last summer’s group shared in their final reflections that what they most wished was that the institute was longer. They wanted to spend more of their summer exploring writing, finding their voices, and telling their stories.
Writing and the Common Core:
As we move into the Common Core State Standards, we need to remember the ultimate purpose of writing: I want my students prepared for writing on demand in situations where it’s called for. I want them to understand what a good persuasive piece needs, and how characters are developed in a narrative piece. But I also want them able to write without me defining all the parameters for them.
I want them to discover their voices, and realize that their voices have power. I want them to tell the untold stories that need to be heard.
How do we create a writing program that allows our students freedom to explore their voices and yet still aligns with the CCSS?