Planning to Make Writing: Distinguishing Form from Medium

I’ve spent much of the summer working with teachers who are eager to integrate making and writing but uncertain where to begin.

This is what I tell them: 

I tell them that making must elevate writing, otherwise it will merely replace it. And writing matters.

I tell them that we need frameworks that help us see how making and writing can connect inside of our classrooms and workshops. Making writing looks like play, but it’s purposeful. Intentional.

I tell them that we need tools and strategies and protocols that inspire complex, creative, and high quality work.

I tell them that for all of these reasons, planning matters.

Planning really matters. So, this is where my return to blogging will begin.

Each Tuesday and Thursday for the remainder of this month, I’ll share a new post that will help you plan a year of making and writing inside of your own classroom. I’ll distill the best of my learning and work on the ground, and I’ll give away some helpful tools. Feel free to use them as they are, or adapt them as needed. You can share them with anyone you know who might find them useful, too. You can also connect with me through the Building Better Writers Facebook group or on Twitter to kick ideas around as you shape your own plans.

Here’s what I’m wondering, as I prepare to share this series of posts with you: What IS writing, anyway? And what does it mean to become a powerful writer? And how do we know when we’ve arrived?

It’s been my overwhelming experience that many great writers are resistant to print. They build beautiful stories with LEGO bricks. They shape compelling arguments out of clay. They paint their poetry. They research. They write. Print simply isn’t their preferred medium.

I’m also acquainted with a good many print-comfy writers who possess false confidence in their skills. They craft coherent essays, pound out multi-page evidence-based arguments, and celebrate each A they earn, certain that they are stronger writers than their print-resistant peers.

Are they?

In my current reality, it takes far more than words to communicate an influential message. In fact, it often takes skills that those print-resistant kids are pretty passionate about perfecting.

My students have always been my greatest teachers, and almost a decade ago, they started pushing my thinking–hard–about the purpose and nature of writing and what it meant to do it well. I stopped seeing resistant writers as weak writers, and instead, I started viewing them as my teachers. It was a painful, humbling, and necessary education that led me to two important discoveries:

First, I’m called to teach ALL writers, not only those who are print-comfy. Next: If this is the case, then my unit planning must distinguish form from medium. 

Form refers to the basic modes of writing. Examples include narrative, opinion, argument, and information writing. Form also refers to the genres. These include specific translations of each mode such as historical fiction, editorial writing, or biography.

I’ve learned that print-comfy kids are all about form and using print to shape it. Print-resistant kids can master form too–especially when we invite them to translate it through an alternate medium.

My traditional writing workshop units are grounded in the study of form, and I continue to honor this best practice. This helps me control for quality one learning target at a time, teaching and assessing the skills that are critical to the development of each specific form bit by bit. I’ll be blogging about unit design soon.

Here’s the shift: I invite writers to translate each form through a medium of their own choosing. They’re still using print bit by bit, in ways that are manageable and easy for me to assess–more on that in the near future. They still draft as well. But the writers I’ve supported in recent years know that the written piece is not the final form. They know that print may make their work proficient, but playing with medium makes it even more poignant, and poignancy matters more than proficiency always and everywhere real. As you’re planning the units that will frame your year, consider how this single shift in design and practice might serve more writers well.

I’ve used the project proposal below with my own students in recent years. Tinker around with it yourself, if you’re interested. Each time I’ve planned with it, I’ve chosen the form and aligned my unit accordingly, controlling for quality one target at a time. Students choose their subjects, their messages, and their mediums.

Want a bit more inspiration and direction? Grab a copy of Intention: Critical Creativity in the Classroom. Amy Burvall and Dan Ryder have much to say on this topic, and a boat load of practical wisdom to share. I especially value the way they define and help students understand the importance of treatment in thinking, writing, and making. I plan to blog my review very soon. I’ve waited for their book for a very long time, and it did not disappoint. It was some of the best reading I’ve done all summer.

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