Making and Unmaking the Resistant Writer

Photo by Matt Artz on Unsplash

Photo by Matt Artz on Unsplash

Last week, I started a conversation that I promised to continue throughout this month, one post at a time. It’s about privilege, power, and print inside of our writing workshops and classrooms. Where we’ve been, where we need to be going, and what I’m trying to do, in order to help people get there. My ideas are a small contribution. I know this. I have much more to learn and others have so much more to share. This is me, doing my small part. I’m honored that you’re here. Reading. It means much. 

I ended on this point last week, and this is where I want to begin again, today:

Resistant writers come from all walks of life and the reasons for their resistance are often varied. One thing is undeniable though, and the research is clear: Students of color, English language learners, and those who live in or come from poverty are systematically underserved in our classrooms and schools. (Allington, McGille, & Frazen 1989, Darlington-Hammond 2001, Oakes, 2008). They often enter school as dependent learners and because so many of us are ill-equipped to teach in culturally responsive ways, that dependency only grows. 

Here’s what that looked like in my own writing workshop. Perhaps you can relate. 

Nigel, an eighth grade writer in one of the very first workshops that I facilitated as a first year teacher, was a newcomer to the country. He received no support from anyone who had expertise in teaching English language learners, and he spoke no English. As an undergraduate, I received no training in working with kids like Nigel, and although I was doing my best to read and learn all that I could, I was failing. Miserably. 

Nigel wasn’t ready to write like the other kids in our workshop were, and I could sense his embarrassment about this. He was a high performing student in his home country. He was also very well liked. Here, he spoke to no one, and no one spoke to him. And he wrote nothing. 

I offered Nigel basic prompts, rigid scaffolds, and what amounted to the least challenging–and interesting–work I could. Nigel was compliant, but bored. Obedient, but resentful. 

And by November, he was throwing punches. 

The other students in my class were a tightly knit bunch. They’d attended school together since kindergarten, and their school was a small one. They grew up in the same suburban neighborhood, played on the same teams, and may have even visited one another’s homes for Mommy and Me play sessions when they were babies. They were upper middle class, wealthy, and white. 

And they had no idea how to get to know Nigel or make him a part of their world. So, they didn’t. 

My efforts to rectify this particular problem were contrived, heavy-handed, and ultimately, a failure. That’s how we found I found myself sitting beside Nigel’s parents in the principal’s office that early winter morning. He was acting out, and his learning was suffering. 

“He doesn’t like to write,” I responded when asked about his performance in my class. 

And his father, through an interpreter, expressed his surprise here. 

The next day, Nigel brought a gift: A large box, filled to the brim with his notebooks. Nigel loved to draw. Nigel loved to make comics. 

Clearly, Nigel could write, and I was denying him the opportunity to do so. Not because I was uncaring or unwilling to work hard, but because I was incompetent. And I was incompetent because I was uninformed and inexperienced.

Humility has always been and will always be my very best teacher. 

When faced with resistant writers, many teachers (like the one I once was) will consciously or unconsciously begin offering them less challenging invitations, engaging them in highly repetitive work intended to build their print power and opportunities to write that are far less interesting than they could be. Denied the opportunity to immerse themselves in a rich and compelling writing workshop experience, one that engages them to their fullest potential, their cognitive development slows.

We might also immerse them in intriguing but highly unstructured workshop experiences that are big on fun and light on explicit instruction. In these scenarios, we might be eager to help our students “fall in love” with writing, and we might assume that choice and voice are enough to accomplish this goal. Many teachers are surprised to learn that supporting resistant and struggling writers well is often (if not always) dependent on explicit instruction in spelling, punctuation, grammar, handwriting, and transcription strategies. This can happen in a workshop environment. It can happen in a MAKE WRITING workshop environment too. And it must, because no amount of voice and choice will move resistant writers forward if rigor and explicit instruction in the basics is missing. This is how writers become increasingly dependent. It’s how they become resentful, too. 

In order to stimulate neuroplasticity and continue growing writers’ brain cells, we must take care not to skimp on the basics or delay the introduction of complex work. Often, our perseveration on print can muddy this water quite a bit. These are not binary choices. Perhaps a better understanding of what writing is might be clarifying.

What is Writing? 

I’m guilty of using a few key terms interchangeably in the past, but each has a distinct meaning, and I’ve learned that those distinctions matter. For example, language, writing, orality, text, and print live in close relationship with one another. I’ve found that understanding that relationship helps me help young writers far better than I used to.

Ferdinand de Saussure, the father of modern linguistics, defined language as the product of social interaction and the use of verbal equipment that allows us to describe that exchange. Many scholars believe writing to be the most basic physical form of language, but understanding the anatomy of writing, its working parts, and how they function together enabled me to serve the young writers and teachers that I support in an entirely new and far more effective way. (Wyse 2017).

Early writers once treated writing as a simple visual representation of oral language. Many modern teachers of writing tend to define it as the application of print. Both lines of reasoning trivialize its influence on the reader, the writer, our history, and our culture, though. Writing and writers are far more than this. 

Writing is a coded system of visual marks that empowers writers to decide precisely which words a reader will generate from a text. When writers produce these coded marks in a way that allows others to read them, they are creating a text. A text might consist of a handful of letters, sentences, paragraphs, passages, or entire volumes of writing. Print is something slightly different and something more. Print refers to books and other materials that are produced–often in mass quantities–by a printing, digital, or 3D press. When we use the verb form of the word “text” we’re typically referring to the messages we send from our phones using short message services (sms), and when we use the verb form of the word “print” we often mean that we’re copying something onto another surface using a machine. Writers produce both text and print. Both relay a coded system of visual marks and both are prepared with readers in mind. Text is typically created without the assistance machines. Print requires a press, and this also affords writers the opportunity to widely distribute their work. (Wyse 2017).

So often, the term writing conjures images of these two things: text and print. And when we refer to writers, many imagine humans who are able to produce those same two things. But what value would text or print really have without a writer’s consideration of intended purpose, structure, and meaning? And what becomes of writers who have a firm understanding of purpose, structure, and meaning but little facility with text or print? They often fall silent. Especially when we put print on a pedestal and demand its use far too early in the process. Especially when we assume that print is the preferred or even the best form of expression in any context. Especially when our choices are driven by our preferences, our privilege, and our power inside of our systems. When these dynamics are at play, many writers will engage less often and with less passion and skill, and they will experience significantly less dendrite growth as a result. This is how writers become and remain increasingly dependent and eventually, completely disengaged.

What if we were more thoughtful here, though? What if we were intentional about coaching the development of form, structure, and meaning first, before we demanded the use of text? What if we situated the use of text inside a bit differently inside of the writing process? And what if we acclimated writers to that part of the writing process in a manner that was responsive to their needs and respectful of their capacities?

What difference might be made, then?

The good news is that the human brain is built to connect, learn, grow, and change. It’s adaptable and agile and shaped by every new experience. Brain plasticity is one of the greatest resources available to all young writers and the teachers who support them in their workshops–especially those who have struggled to produce text or put down print, historically. 

The fact is that the shift from orality to writing changed our human psyche, cognition, and culture, and the writers that we support are the product of this evolution. If I’m truly eager to understand resistant writers, I must begin by considering the cultures they’re descended from and the unique strengths and gifts they carry with them into my writing workshops and those of the teachers I support, whether I happen to notice them or not. And if I am unwilling to commit to this learning? Well, then I must admit that I am the resistant learner, not the writers I am called to serve.

Ouch. I know.

And hey–before you close this post and walk away forever, let me reassure you: This doesn’t require any us to create separate instructional plans for every single writer in our workshops. It will require you to understand and become increasingly responsive to what Zaretta Hammond refers to as cultural archetypes, though. (Hammond 2015).

More on that in next week’s post. Want to talk about this more? Just drop a comment here or come and find me on Twitter or Facebook.


References:

Allington, Richard L., and Anne Mcgill-Franzen. “School Response to Reading Failure: Instruction for Chapter 1 and Special Education Students in Grades Two, Four, and Eight.” The Elementary School Journal, vol. 89, no. 5, 1989, pp. 529–542.

Darlington-Hammond, L. 2001. The Right to Learn: A Blueprint for Creating Schools that Work. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Ong, Walter. 2012. Orality and Literacy. 3rd ed., UK: Routledge.

Wolf, Maryanne. 2008. Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. Harper Perennial: New York.

Wyse, Dominic. 2017. How Writing Works: From the Invention of the Alphabet to the Rise of Social Media. UK: Cambridge University Press.

 

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