There are many reasons and many ways to make writing in our classrooms and workshops.
And there are many things that should give us pause here, too.
For instance, if making isn’t elevating the writer in our students or the writing that they produce, I question whether we should be sacrificing writing time to it.
If you know me well, then you know that I also spend a bit of time questioning what it really means to be a writer in the world now, too.
In school, we write for tests, but that kind of writing does not make us writers. We write to make our comprehension of a text clear, so that teachers might assess it. And that’s important, but this kind of writing doesn’t make us writers either, does it? Those essays my students used to write didn’t make many of them writers. Neither did the research papers or the quickly crafted responses they offered to the prompts that I provided.
The fact is that few people read any of that stuff in the real world, so I have a hard time convincing myself that those efforts made my students writers. It may have helped them practice certain elements of craft. It might have given them experience with certain forms and on our best days, the process. But that stuff didn’t help any one of my students leave a mighty mark on their world.
Real writers move readers (even if their only readers are simply themselves). They have influence. Their work has great relevance. And that has me wondering:
What is writing now, anyway?
If I’m being honest, that kind of writing didn’t matter to anyone other than those who cared about their performance inside of school. And even then, it didn’t matter for the best reasons. Now that I have been at this gig as long as I have, I’m comfortable sharing this observation, too: Many adults who struggle to achieve satisfaction in their personal and professional lives performed well in school. Many adults who long to create things that matter and even change something important in their communities lack the confidence and the skill to do so with any real level of impact because they never really became writers.
They just learned how to write some stuff in order to perform well on the tasks that teachers like me deemed worthy of everyone’s time.
Experience has helped me develop a good amount of expertise, but I don’t claim to be an expert on what writing once was or has become or what it will be. I am certain of this, though: Writing is not merely print, and when we reduce it to print, we cripple many writers.
If, like me, you understand that writing is one of the most important ways that we share our selves and our needs and our gifts with the world, then you understand the depth of our opportunity and responsibility here. Writing is also how we advocate for ourselves and for others. It’s one of the greatest ways that we pursue and protect what matters most in this life.
This is my life’s work: Empowering people to recognize and then use their strengths to better their own lives, the lives of those they love, and the lives of those who don’t enjoy the same privileges that they do. My experiences have taught me that this requires design thinking, research, and writing. Over the last decade, I’ve come to realize that print often gets in the way here.
Perhaps you’re wondering: If writing and print aren’t one and the same, then how I am I defining the former?
I understand writing to be structure, meaning making, and the crafting of visual clues that include but are not limited to print.
For many, this changes everything.
Why loose parts?
Loose parts are materials that fit in our hands. We carry them. We move them around. We mix and remix and combine them. Then, we take them apart again. There are no directions that guide their use. They mingle with many other kinds of loose parts, too.
Loose parts are LEGO and PlayDoh and clay. Buttons and bobbins and string. Loose parts are sticks and stones and leaves. Playing cards, paint chips, and dice.
If we can carry it, move, mix, and remix it, it’s probably a loose part.
And loose parts are powerful writing tools.
Here are a few of my favorites:
Build It. Better It. Then, Bridge to Print.
If writing is structure , meaning making, and the crafting of visual clues, then I have to wonder: Why do we reduce it to print? And why do we push pens and pencils and devices at writers the moment our workshops begin? What about structure? What about meaning?
What about lowering that print barrier long enough to truly elevate both? We seem to remember this when we’re teaching reading. Why aren’t we talking about this as writing teachers?
Several months ago, I invited a newcomer to this country to build a personal narrative. I’ve written about this before. I offered her a simple three part structure (pictured below), a pile of Imagination Patterns (also pictured below), and ten minutes inside of a forty minute workshop to accomplish this task.
And this is what she built:
This looks fairly simple at first glance, doesn’t it? Kinda cute and rather shallow. I know, I know.
But, it wasn’t.
When I checked in with this writer, she used her loose parts to tell me a poignant story. Her story.
Before the storm came, my house made me sad. It made me feel ashamed. I thought it was ugly. I thought it was small. How strange it was to realize it was beautiful only after it was ruined by the storm. We are trying to make a nice home here, now that we are in this new country. We have a whole house, and it isn’t broken, but it isn’t as beautiful as my other house.
So, here’s my first question, which I’ve asked here before: Do you think that this writer would have written me this story if I’d handed her a pen or pencil or a Chromebook instead of that pile of loose parts?
And here’s my next question: Is it print that made her story powerful?
And finally: Did print empower this writer?
If my experiences have been any kind of teacher, then I can tell you that if I’d handed her a pen, a pencil, or a keyboard, she would have chosen a simpler story to tell. One that matched her print power. Or she simply would have chosen not to write at all.
Loose parts protect the complexity of writers’ ideas by enabling them to attend to and experiment with structure and meaning first.
Before they transition to print.
Prototyping is Powerful Planning
And it’s different from outlining, using a traditional graphic organizer to plan, or drafting.
Prototyping is low-risk and low-commitment.
Prototypes are designed rapidly, using inexpensive materials and limited resources. They enable designers to quickly create, test, and solicit feedback ahead of iterating and improving on the design.
Outlines, graphic organizers, and drafts require time and tenacity. They’re a commitment. An investment. And because they require much heavier lifting, writers are much more reluctant to experiment, tinker, play, and revise once they are completed.
Print feels far more permanent. It’s also harder to penetrate.
When we prototype in my world, it often looks a little like this:
It also looks like this:
Rapid design. Low risk. Low commitment.
Writers build it. Then we better the build before we transition to print.
Coaching Metaphorical Thinking
Bit by bit. That’s how we build better writers, and that’s how writers better their builds.
When we situate structure ahead of meaning or print, we enjoy an aerial view of what the writer intends to do. Once we’ve assessed the viability of that plan and helped writers improve it, we’re ready to begin teaching into each part of it, one learning target, teaching point, and bit at a time.
Bettering the build might look like some simple prompting for additional details, but I find that when we coach metaphorical thinking, we enrich the complexity of the piece. This happens the moment we introduce loose parts, because the materials themselves provoke it. I
‘m reminded of all of the metaphors that lived inside of this powerful argument, which was built by teachers in Rochester, New York. They had important things to say about gun control and whether or not educators should be armed. The use of black and white around this issue was intentional. They choose pebbles and rocks to make specific points. This enabled them to communicate the weight of varied evidence.
But coaching metaphorical thinking doesn’t stop there. The questions we ask can deepen thinking further. When I look into a build beside a writer, I often use prompts like these:
Bridge Them to Print, Bit by Bit
Once writers have built and bettered their prototypes, we begin drafting bit by bit. This makes the writing process far more recursive. It enables us to provide just-right feedback, just in time, on our feet, where writers can respond to it. If I know my learning target or teaching point, I offer a meaningful mini-lesson, and then I challenge writers to get to work…on just one bit. Not the entire draft. I differentiate my learning targets, and we tinker as we go.
Some writers can produce grade level print the minute that I prompt them to.