Seeing Ourselves, Seeing Others: Creating a More Inclusive Writing Workshop Environment

I’d just wrapped a mini-lesson on using evidence to support a claim. The writers that filled up the room were shifting away from our meeting spot and toward the back of the room, where an assortment of loose parts awaited them: blocks and marbles, LEGO and clay, buttons and string, paint chips and paper clips. Pebbles. Acorns. A deck of cards. Markers.

There were other things as well–a wide assortment of materials for students who were not my own.

Students whose languages I did not speak.

They knew what they were to do: Make a claim about something unfair in your community, I’d challenged them. Be ready to explain your structure and the meaning inside of it. You have twenty minutes to build. Go.

Marielle scooped up a handful of blocks and several marbles. Three paint chips. The queen of hearts. A slender tube of clay.

In the space of two minutes, she used the blocks to build three houses, resting red paint chips in front of two of them and a blue chip in front of the last house in the tidy row she’d created. I noticed that the houses with the red chips were very close to one another, but the house with the blue chip was set far apart. This seemed intentional, and I wanted to know more.

“Tell me what you’re making,” I said.

“This is like my neighborhood right now. Well, just a piece of it. In this house, there is a mother, a father, and a baby. They love each other, and the neighbors love them. Love is red. In the second house, there is a mother all by herself and a baby. They love each other, and the neighbors love them. So, another red chip. Love is red. But in the third house, there’s just two women. They’re married. They have no baby. And no one talks to them. People don’t know them. They stay away. Blue is cold. So, I picked a blue card. People talk about these women. They say mean things.”

I nodded, and then I asked Marielle if she was ready to make a claim.

“If we don’t know people, we can’t love them,” she said, pointing out the distance between the first two houses on the street and the third, where the two married women lived. “And we need to be loving to people in order to know them. So love is not just what happens after we know people. Love is what we have to do first,” she explained, moving all three of the houses closer to one another and placing the queen of hearts beside them.

“That is a beautiful claim,” I sighed, wondering where her argument might take her. “How do you hope your writing will change people, Marielle? What do you hope they will do with this information?”

“I want people to be loving to those they don’t know,” she said, rolling the clay along the table and then working it with her hands.

“How?” I asked. “What would that look like?”

She shrugged, placing the clay on the table in front of her. She sized it up, waiting for it to reveal something to her. She didn’t know how to respond to me. Yet. “I want to learn about what we do to love people who are far away from us. People who are different,” she said. “How do we move closer? How do we turn the blue to red?”

And so, Marielle had a claim. What’s more, an argument was beginning to take shape right in front of her. She was thinking metaphorically, and I suspected this: If I’d asked Marielle to complete the same task using a pen or a pencil or a keyboard instead of loose parts, she would have only scribbled the simplest of claims, if she offered anything at all.

And I would have assumed that she wasn’t capable.

I would have assumed that she could not write.

Instead, I documented the fact that she met the expected learning target for that day’s lesson, and then I began to prompt the use of print. Her ability to use it well would be documented separately. Eventually. When it was time.

“Jot down as much of what you told me as possible,” I smiled, pushing an index card toward her. “We don’t want to lose your great ideas.”

Before the bell rang at the end of our 43 minute class period, Marielle jotted a note that listed the most essential elements of her claim. She explained her color choices. She sketched something that reminded her of the distance between the houses, too. She captured the structure and the meaning behind her build, but she wasn’t using complete sentences yet.

And that was okay. She’d crafted a foundation that was far more complex than anything she might have had I demanded the use of print this early in the process. I knew she’d build onto it tomorrow and that the structure and the meaning that loose parts enabled would find it’s way onto the page if I took care to bridge her there.

Bit by bit.

Not draft by draft.

This is what it looks like when we make writing.

But why MAKE writing at all?

I’ve used this question to start many different conversations with many different teachers and the young writers that they support in recent years. Some responses validated my own experiences and thinking, and some of them pushed and even challenged it.

Hard.

Here’s what I’m learning, from my work on the ground, inside of the spaces where others have begun this work:

 

  • We make writing because loose parts help us scale print barriers and protect complexity. It’s been my experience that most writers, regardless of age or experience level, are able to generate and even develop incredibly complex, tightly structured, and truly beautiful ideas than they are often invited to inside of our writing workshops and classrooms. Why? Well, because if our students haven’t built enough print power to put those gorgeous ideas down on a page, then we tend to automatically lower the demand of the task. We withhold the invitation to do hard things. This is problematic. I’ve also watched young writers choose simpler ideas over those that are far more complex if they know that they will have to use print in order to share them. We make writing in order to produce and protect the complexity of every writer’s ideas, even as they work to build their print power. I’m noticing that writers will reach for better words and employ far more sophisticated craft moves when they’re invited to make ahead of transitioning to print. Making builds self-efficacy, and if we’re trying to engage all learners, self-efficacy matters. Much.

 

  • We make writing because every material speaks a different language, and this diversity adds dimension and depth to our work. Feathers afford writers something that letters do not. Blocks enable us to build in several dimensions. Paint allows us to express ourselves in ways that print cannot. Materials matter, and I’ll say more about this soon, but for now, I’ll just add this: I’ve spent a long time watching writers play with loose parts in order to uncover new and unexpected ideas. I’ve also watched them iterate on things they’ve already expressed once they encounter new parts or fiddled with them a bit. Sometimes, we bring our ideas to the materials because the materials help us define structures and mess with craft multi-modally and far more efficiently than print typically does. We also use materials to generate ideas when we’re struggling, deepening meaning with each iteration, and elevating craft. Reggio inspired teachers often say that every material “speaks a different language.” Our students speak different languages as well. Fluently. How might we invite their use in our workshops? What might happen if we did?

 

  • We make writing in order to make a better assessment of what writers know and can do. Construct validity is a crucial component of quality assessment design. Why do we continue to demand the use of print when we’re assessing learning targets that have little to do with it? When does print empower learners and help us make a good assessment of what they know and can do, and when does print obscure our findings? When does it create a screen? When does it perpetuate inequity? Making often enables me to make a better assessment of what writers know and what they can do. It helps me notice exactly when–and how–they struggle with print as well.

 

  • We make writing because real audiences demand something different now. If we want our ideas to be influential, it’s not enough to be print comfortable anymore. We must know how to use different mediums and modalities, and more importantly, we must be comfortable experimenting and playing with those we are unfamiliar and even uncomfortable with. After all, great writers embrace abstraction in as much as they strive to make the ethereal concrete. Print matters, but as I’ve said often this year, it often lives on the design room floor. Consumers often prefer multi-modal and multi-sensory expressions of thought. If we want to raise writers who leave a mighty mark on the work, we’re responsible for helping them write this way, too. Even when they prototype with print, their final pieces must be translated into other forms in order to be of value in today’s world. Making builds capacity for this.

 

  • We make writing because we need to be culturally responsive. As a new English teacher, I knew little about the history of print, it’s relationship to orality, and the influence of graphocentricism inside of  our culture. Sure, I knew enough about who was empowered by it and who was denied it, but I was never invited–nor did I make it my own mission–to think deeply about how that particular history influences what happens inside of writing workshops and classrooms today. This is important learning that’s inspired me to do some heavy reading, start some uncomfortable conversations, and lean into some of the hardest learning of my career. For instance, I’ve realized that while my privilege makes me exceptionally print comfortable, print may not be the preferred or even the best mode of expression for many writers. What’s more, their resistance to using it does not make them deficient writers. It certainly makes them a bit more dependent when it comes to producing print, but if it’s my responsibility to foster independence, I need to  recognize, own, and attend to the significant levels of bias that I bring into the classroom—chirographic and otherwise (and that particular Venn diagram is a powerful one to consider). I’m grateful to Zaretta Hammond for her incredible contributions to the field and to my own thinking, here. Get yourself connected, all. And read her book. Inviting students to make writing seems to make a small difference here, but my learning has just begun.

Seeing Ourselves

When I got serious about creating more inclusive workshop environments, I committed to seeking diverse perspectives. I pushed myself out of the familiar bubble of writing and workshop experts that grew me into the young writer and teacher that I initially became. I moved my workshop out of the public school setting. I started reading outside of my echo chamber. Then, I began connecting myself to those who not only challenged my thinking but who taught me how to see myself better.

They taught me that my writing workshop was not a neutral space and that I–that all of us, in fact–are biased practitioners. They challenged me to consider this and to do better work here.

I was drawn to design thinking because it rooted me in empathy first–as a writer and as a teacher. My studies uncovered tangible approaches that helped me transform my practices. More important, they put me in professional circles with other teachers who are striving to become increasingly empathetic themselves. In these circles, empathy is an action, not merely a feeling. And this changed everything for me.

We often hear that making isn’t a movement but a culture, and it’s true. Don’t you find yourself wondering how to create culture, though? I used to think it was all about shifting them–the makers and writers I support. And it is.

But, it’s also about me, too.

I began inviting writers to use mediums and modalities other than print because they were dragging me there, quite literally. Some even kicked and cried each time I invited them to put down print. These writers were resistant to pencil, paper, and keyboard, but more than willing to tinker and play with other materials and tools, including blocks and paint and voice and movement and music. I had no idea where they were going, but I was willing to watch them, listen, and learn.

Practicing empathy–following these writers without lowering my expectations for them– illuminated my own blind spots. When I started offering everyone abundant and wildly diverse materials to write with, it made me realize just how much I was imposing my own biases on those whose experiences, cultural histories, and fluencies were very, very different–but no less complex or worthy–than my own.

This was when I discovered that our writing workshops are not neutral spaces. They’re reflections of each designer’s culture, values, and perspectives. My early workshops, curriculum, instructional practices, and assessments were a reflection of me and the giants whose shoulders I stood on. I created them after studying best practices and making a few assumptions about what my students needed or wanted. This wasn’t a bad thing, but it wasn’t enough, and it still isn’t.

If you’re the primary designer in your own world, no amount of inviting others to visit will make it any less of a reflection of you. No amount of inviting others to visit will make them feel at home there, either.

I learned this from experience. It was, and it remains–humbling.

I’m reminded of the first time I planned to offer loose parts to writers inside of my own writing workshop. I was a skeptic then and the kind of teacher who taught from the front of the room. My mini-lessons were teacher-centered, and although I would have argued if accused of this then–so was the process I moved writers through. Nonetheless, I began trying to use a bunch of loose parts that I was not particularly comfortable with to create my own argument, absent of print. I was doing this because every single “resistant” writer that I supported at the time was identifying as a maker of some kind, and I was convinced that if they could make writing somehow, I’d be able to engage them. So, I tried this myself. And I was out of my element. Confused. Even a bit afraid. And I noticed a bit of defensiveness rising up in me.

This was when I began to understand just how impossible writing might be for those whose preferred tools are not pen or pencil or keyboard. This was also when I began to understand how threatened chirographically biased writers and teachers might be by the suggestion that writing must be distinguished from print. What’s chirographic bias? It’s the belief that print is the superior mode of expression and that those who use it are somehow more intelligent than those who are fluent in other modes.

This work has helped me understand writing, writers, and most crucially–myself–in ways that I would not have, otherwise. It’s also tempered the curse of expertise that’s been a regular threat throughout my career. It’s made me a life-long and uncertain learner, and it’s this, I’ve realized 26 years in, that has made me a real teacher. Not my certainty, my expertise, or my accomplishments. My uncertainty. My humility. The awareness of the fact that I need to know more and the fear that I might be doing it wrong. That I’m always doing it wrong. And I am. Here’s the icing on that cake, though: I’m never bored, and I’m never burned out, and I’ve made such incredible friendships along the way.

I’m wondering if this kind of thing has happened to you, because I want it to. For your students, and for you. If it hasn’t, how might you provoke it?

Better Questions to Begin the Year

Some (like me) find it powerful to reflect on questions like these. My own answers offered new and different perspectives about who I am as a teacher, why I do what I do the way that I do it, and how it might be serving or hurting others.

  • Consider the ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic identities of those you’ve learned beside and those you’ve learned from. Who made you a writer? Who made you a teacher? How did they identify? Why might this matter?
  • Which of their messages were most influential to you? What and who did these people respect most? What and who did they disrespect? How do you know?
  • Where did the power lines fall inside of the systems that raised you as a learner and a teacher? Who was the “us” and who was “them” inside of those worlds? Where did you notice that kind of ranking? Why did it matter? What did it protect? What did it threaten?
  • What stories are regularly told or referenced about writers, writing, and teaching in our field? What might this reveal about our more collective biases?
  • What was praised in your own writing by the teachers you respected most? Least? What was criticized? How does this influence who you are as a teacher and how you speak with writers about their work?
  • What role did authority play in your own relationships with the teachers you respected most? Least? How does this influence who you are as a teacher and how you relate to your students?
  • What role did performance play? What earned you praise as a learner or writer? What resulted in unpleasant consequences?
  • What are your own, personal experiences with writing? With workshop? How have they influenced your teaching?
  • What do you think it means to be a great writer? How does that understanding help you nurture young writers? How might it limit your capacity to do so?
  • What is your most comfortable mode of expression? Do you prefer print? Are you one to speak your mind instead? Are you an oral storyteller? A comedian? Do you sing? Dance? Do you enjoy making? If so, which tools or materials do you favor? In other words, which languages do you speak?

Seeing Others

When we make writing, we begin to widen our assessment aperture. We see more, and we are intentional about seeing better. I’ve invited writers at the middle and high school levels to reflect quietly and independently on the questions above. I’ve let them know that they need not share their responses with others, but that they are welcome to, if they choose. I’ve also made it clear that the work of all writing teachers is to see their students.

How might we do that better?

I’ve asked that of students, and I’ll ask it of you, too: How do we get beneath the surface of things with our students? How do we begin to see who they are as humans, where they really come from, and what they truly want and need?

I’m not sure that it’s enough to write a Where I’m From piece at the start of the year, and I think this is far bigger than the basic All About Me project. Multicultural days and food festivals and the celebration of diverse holidays aren’t helping, and I know they aren’t helping because when I was in the classroom, I was the QUEEN of this kind of thing. For a few years after, I helped other teachers organize the same. It didn’t help.

Fifteen years later, here’s what seems to be, though: STORY.

Story helps. The stories we tell about ourselves as writers and teachers, and the stories we invite students to share. The ones they make. The narratives they build.

I believe this.

I believe it because too many young writers and the teachers who love them–the ones who have been willing to take some risks with me over the last few years–they’ve shown me, time and again, that story is a part of every kind of great writing, and inviting people to use mediums and modalities other than print brings those stories to life.

It brings them to those who need to hear them most, too.

How might we use questions like the ones I’ve shared above to help young writers make stories that matter? How might we help them find their audiences for those stories? How might those stories, on the hearts of the right audiences, make a real difference in this world?

Seeing Your Narrative Writing Unit with New Eyes

Each Sunday this month, I plan to share some new thinking about how we approach narrative writing in our classrooms and workshops. And WHY. I promise tangible tools. Lessons. Resources. And I’ll be sure to offer ideas that appeal to primary, intermediate, middle, and high school writers and teachers alike. If you’re interested in learning more about the ideas I’ve shared here and how to make them actionable, stop by. I’m but one person, all. All of us need to hear from you. Connect with me on Twitter and with many more friends in the Building Better Writers Facebook group, too. We’re a friendly bunch, and I have a feeling we might be talking about all of this a bit more in the coming weeks. Join us!

 

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