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Integrating Making and Writing: Constraints, Complexity, and Connection

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Integrating making and writing experiences may not seem very difficult, but in my experience, making this marriage worthwhile requires some careful planning.

It takes nothing to dump a pile of loose parts on a table and challenge kids to build, but I wonder: How many of them would build straight through an entire class without pausing to compose a single line, though?

Those who are responsible for teaching writing are wise to consider this reality. Many of the teachers I support tell me that making must elevate writing experiences if we’re going to devote time to it in English Language Arts classrooms. I couldn’t agree more.

I find that these things matter: 

  1. Constraints. I find that giving writers specific challenges, fewer but more intriguing resources, and time limits creates a wonderful kind of urgency that feels a lot like game play. This also ensures that we don’t sacrifice our all of our writing time to making. An example of a typical challenge might include providing students with different kinds of string, ten minutes, and the following prompt: Use what you learn from your investigation of the string provided to revise the traditional story arc that we tend to rely on as writers. Here’s what happened the last time we tried this at the WNY Young Writers’ Studio. 

2. Complexity. It’s not enough to have kids make the main characters of the stories they plan to write or build prototypes of the the things they intend to research and write informational pieces about. Making must expand or deepen the writer’s understanding of a topic, challenge the assumptions they’re bringing to their work, provoke questions that are worthy of pursuit, or refine the perceptions that might inform their drafts. Cheryl Dobbertin, author of Common Core Unit by Unit, challenges teachers to create compelling contexts for reading by inviting students to pursue activities like those below. I find that they make for meaningful making as well:

Examine an intriguing question from varied perspectives

Test a worthwhile theory

Investigate local concerns, problems, or injustices

Inform others about essential moments in local history

Analyze mentor texts showcase critical craft moves

3. Connection. Making may be an end unto itself in the makerspace, but in writing workshops and English Language Arts classrooms, integrating it within a set of rich reading and writing experiences adds rigor. Yes, you read me right.  I used the word rigor. Proudly. And I hope you don’t leave now. Challenge me if you’d like. It’s just been my abundant experience that confidence grows when writers feel themselves scaling increasingly complex challenges. I find that when making connects with and informs our greater purposes as well as the other texts that we’re consuming and producing, sophisticated learning follows. If your notion of rigor has anything to do with mortis, know that we aren’t speaking the same language.

Here is an example of the kind of connection that inspires the makers and writers that I know: Prior to their study of the American Civil Rights Movement, students use evidence from rapid research (fifteen minutes, max) to build their responses to this prompt: How was Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream achieved? How was it deferred? Then, as they dive into varied primary sources, narratives, poems, and songs from the era throughout the unit, they tinker with their prototypes, adjusting the details in order to make them increasingly accurate and pointed. The final products are shared and analyzed bit by bit. Students use details from these research-based builds to inform their writing. Some may choose to continue work on their prototypes as well, shaping them into polished products that serve audiences or consumers in other ways.

If you’re beginning to bring making into your writing workshop or struggling to help kids pivot from building to writing, these three considerations may help you find greater successes. Come find me on Twitter or join the WNY Young Writers’ Studio Facebook group if you’re interested in chatting about this more!

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