Writers Need Readers
Introducing: Kids Get Published, my tool for creating authentic writing opportunities for children.
Learning how to write is hard. Teaching children how to write well is even harder. And we have to start in primary school. Too often, we leave intensive writing lessons to the upper years, waiting until they are ‘old enough’ to get it. And too often, children reach high school already believing that they can’t write, that they are not writers, and then it’s too late. We must start early, cultivating their identities as writers and practicing the basic skills they’ll need.
But I can’t count the number of times I have stood in front of a class of tired ten-year-olds, trying to get them to put a paragraph down on paper. Sometimes, it’s like trying to get blood from a stone.
There’s the kid who sits in front of the blank page for an hour, ‘thinking’. The kid who scribbles down 3 short sentences and proclaims the project ‘finished’. The one who studiously counts how many lines of paper their writing has taken up with no concern for how well written any of them are. The kid who tells me they have no ideas, the one who spends all their time checking spelling mistakes in the first sentence and never gets to the second one, and the kid who needs reassurance after every line that they haven’t gotten it wrong.
All of these students can talk until they are blue in the face. They have ideas and answers and arguments. The discussions are lively and interesting. But when it comes time to transfer those ideas to paper, they really struggle.
We know that the best way to get better at writing is to write, but how on earth do we make them do it?
Children need 3 things to form an identity and See Themselves as Writers:
They need authentic opportunities: Choose topics that matter to them and that they are passionate about. Use the news, issues in school, books they loved or hated.
They need to Make Connections: They can not be isolated, writing into the void. They need to connect to each other and to the world, a community of writers and a platform for readers.
They need to be confident: We need to remove the fear of failure. No red pens, no bad grades. As an adult, we would never choose a writers’ retreat with a report card. Why would children?
We can achieve all of this by creating a safe, encouraging Writing Community, including a way to publish, in our classrooms.
Children need to write about things that matter to them. We spend so much time on writing exercises that have no real world meaning. No more exercises! Find engaging topics that children care about. Listen to your students. Remember that they’re smart. Find topics that they respond to – and ditch the ones they don’t. My last round of essays had children writing about vaccines. I guided them to news articles and showed them how to choose sources. I taught them about the right, and the responsibility, of Free Speech. I allowed them to passionately defend themselves. The writing was magnificent.
Writing is communication. We don’t usually like to sit in our living room and talk to ourselves – we seek out people to talk to, to listen to what we have to say. Writing is the same.
In my classroom, online or in person, we talk and write together. Talking is always the starting point, and always what we return to as we move through the process. We discuss the topic together before we even pick up a pen. I encourage the children to talk in groups as they brainstorm ideas before they begin with any kind of formal structure. As they begin to do rough copies, we take regular breaks to share our writing with each other. Children volunteer to read their paragraphs out loud, or have their piece put up on the whiteboard.
The difference in enthusiasm, engagement, and participation, is immediate.
As soon as they know that someone will get to read or hear what they write, without a grade, without a red pen, they are much more excited to get something down on paper. They have a reason for doing it. And as the class goes on, more and more children get excited and confident to share. The ones who were shy at first see their more confidence classmates share, and they gain confidence themselves. The ones who thought they were the only ones with mistakes or who only wrote a few sentences realize that everybody’s in the same boat, and that theirs is much better than they thought. The ones who didn’t know what to write get a model from the kids who did, and with that encouragement, they’re off.
When I was a new teacher, this made me nervous. I was worried about embarrassing students by asking them to share their writing with their classmates, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. As long as students know before they begin writing that sharing is on the table, so they don’t write something confidential (there is a time and a place for that), they become much more confident sharing with their classmates than a teacher. After all, their classmates aren’t going to give them a grade, and they are not the authority who can tell them they’re wrong. They are on equal footing.
The biggest barrier to success for my students has always been the fear of failing. They know to look for my red pen marking up their story, for the grade circled at the top.
I don’t do that any more. I don’t put a grade or a number on it. I focus on qualitative feedback and next steps, and I do it throughout the process instead of at the end. It’s a conversation, not a judgement. They need the room to just write, to get it all out on paper, and to be brave, before they have to start thinking about any mistakes.
When it does finally come time to edit, we workshop that too. I put a few up on the board, or share the screen. I model editing a piece, then we edit one together. Once they know what to look for, we start sharing our papers around the desks or in zoom rooms.
Putting the power to edit and change their work into their hands, rather than reserving that power for myself, is transformative.
And now the most important part: Publishing.
They need to publish. Writers need readers. They need to feel proud of all that work they did, and they need to feel that they did it for a reason. Seeing their work somehow out in the world is the greatest motivator I have found. That publishing can be as small as putting it up on the walls of your classroom or as big as binding up books to put in your school library.
I have created Kids Get Published. This is a student blog full of student writing. They share that link with their parents, their families, their other teachers, their friends. They see me so proud of their work that I am willing to publish it. They know before they start writing that publishing is a goal, and now I’m hearing them say confidently, as they submit a piece to me, “It’s good, I’m ready to publish.”
And the proof that it works? Read the writing. It’s good, and with the kids who submit more than once, we can see the improvement over time. On this blog, they are writing about things that matter to them – opinions that are important to them, books they love or hate, stories they crafted lovingly.
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