**Click here to read Part 1.
Every year in school, I remember having some sort of assignment where we had to do a mini write-up about ourselves. In third and fourth grade we had a “Very Important Person” week where we each shared our report and brought in artifacts that represented us. There was always an estimation jar with candy in it. I wonder if that’s why I like writing about myself as a child. In fifth grade, the assignment changed a bit to doing a family tree. As someone who has always enjoyed history and learning about the origin of my family, I loved this assignment. I called my grandparents and furiously scribbled down notes as they shared fun tidbits about their ancestors. A few days after I turned this assignment in, my grandmother wrote me a letter saying how much she enjoyed helping me and adding some information she had remembered after we finished our conversation. This writing was purposeful to me. I saw the benefit and joy of using writing as a tool to share personal life experiences.
As a teacher, I always begin the year having my students write about themselves. I keep this assignment open-ended as I believe that I learn valuable information from my students when they are not “boxed-in.” Every year, I am surprised at the directions they go. Some write pages, some write a paragraph, and some write a couple of sentences. As the year goes on, I think back to this assignment, and try to create other writing assignments based off of their interests. I believe that offering students choice in their writing helps the writing become more personal. While giving students an option for a prompt based off of their interests used to be what I considered personal writing, this semester I’ve realized that it still limits students. I’ve begun to let my students have more opportunities for free-writing. I’ve started sitting down and engaging my students in a conversation about topics they’re interested in, what they’re passionate about, etc. I’ve encouraged them to write about their interests as opposed to prompts that I give them. I’ve given them the freedom of writing however and whatever they want. While this has been hard for some of my students, for others it has been liberating. They’ve taken off and are taking more ownership and pride in their work. Unlike my previous classes, these students are more eager to share their writing. Yes, personality could play a factor, but I believe that they see the writing as their own, and not a piece that they were forced to write.
As a child, I did not like creative writing. The times that I received these assignments, I remember not enjoying them. Perhaps it was because I always had to rewrite my stories. Perhaps it’s because I have always been a very concrete but reflective thinker. Perhaps it was because the label “creative writing” was presented to me as a child as writing a story like The Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis. I think it is most likely a combination of these. Creative writing was stressful for me.
Over this semester, I’ve begun to see that my writing as a child was creative even if it differed from the definition I once learned in school. When I wrote about things that I was passionate about, I was being creative as I was engaging in writing that was interesting to me. I was taking what I had learned from stories and history and incorporating them into a story of my own. I believe my identity as a writer was always wrapped up in genres I liked and did not like because of the fixed definitions and style I was taught as a child. It made me think I was not creative, when in reality, my version of creative writing differed from the textbook definition. It wasn’t wrong, it was different.
My first year of teaching, I had a teaching assistant who loved traditional creative writing, like I had learned in school, and came up with many prompts for the students to answer in their journal. According to these students’ parents, the students enjoyed journal writing because the atmosphere was low-key. They wrote in journals in which we did not take a red pen and mark up their page. Instead, we would show them how much we enjoyed their writing by having them choose their favorite stories for us to type up and display on the board. I learned a lot from my teaching assistant that year and have kept journal writing in place. However, through the course of this semester, I have changed the way I approach journal writing. Previously, I would give my students a prompt, and have them answer the specific prompt in their journal. I’d try to ensure that if I had a more traditional “creative” prompt (e.g. “It was a dark and stormy night….”) I also would have a more “concrete” prompt for children who are more inspired and compelled by concrete or reflective writing, as opposed to writing stories like C.S. Lewis. Currently, when I allow my students the time to journal, I do not give them a prompt. If they’re stuck, I sit down with them and talk to them about their interests and passions or what they envision. I remind them that they can write whatever and however they want.
While I believe that students do need to learn how to answer a prompt, I believe that can be done differently. I’d rather this be the focus of a mini-lesson then make them concerned about whether they’re answering all parts of the prompt when the purpose of journal writing is for them to enjoy writing and experience with different styles and techniques, going outside of the boundaries they are used to. By keeping the environment stress-free, I believe they truly do enjoy this time. When students have autonomy as writers, they are more engaged in the process and take more ownership of their work.
I am a proponent of students learning how to write with paper and pencil. I believe that this is better for health reasons and also for their overall academic careers. They are not staring at a screen all day. They are developing their fine motor skills. They are practicing the habit of attention. While most of my students’ writing is done on paper, I am realizing more and more that my third graders write like they text. However, times are changing, and I need to be open to this change, allowing them to express themselves in ways that are familiar and comfortable to them, not trying to force them into a style of writing that is not theirs.
Over the past several years I have taught students the importance of writing for a specific audience and that certain rules are followed at certain times. When they write at school, sentences should begin with a capital letter; have a subject and verb; make sense; and end with ending punctuation. As I reflect on this, especially in light of Kirkland’s book, I realize that by prioritizing writing on paper and stressing mechanics, my students receive messages that I do not value non-dominate forms of literacy expression as much as I value dominate literacy practices—practices that I grew up learning from teachers who learned these same practices. This message that I have given my students over the years may have unintentionally silenced them from expressing themselves freely. I have wanted them to fit the mold, to write in standard English, because it is familiar to me and I know how them grow as writers using the traditional format. In the past month, I’ve begun to not stress mechanics or the traditional writing process when they’re journaling. I truly want my students to be able to express themselves, to share their voice. I need to continue to challenge myself to think about how I can change my approach to writing.
Earlier this year, I mentioned that I was wrestling with using online blogging as a platform for my students to express themselves. When I presented this idea to my students, a few of them were interested in trying it. We have a class blog where they’re able to type or record their thoughts. I have seen that this has been beneficial for my students with fine-motor struggles. It has also helped my students who have so many ideas but struggle to get them down fast enough. It definitely has helped me differentiate my instruction. However, I continue to be torn as to how much I can push back at my school given the unique curriculum and philosophy of a classical school where children’s handwriting, standard English, and dominate literacy practices are valued. While I can’t change everything, what I can change within my classroom, I will. I will strive to ensure that all my students have a voice and are able to express their literacy practices.