To Teach Writing Sin Miedo: Rethinking how we create fear or courage for our writers

ESSENTIAL QUESTION: How do we provide students with the opportunities and space to write “sin miedo”?

ADDITIONAL QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION:

  1. What does it mean to write without fear?
  2. Where does fear come from in the context of writing in the classroom?
  3. What kinds of classroom traumas create or worsen this fear?
  4. How do we help writers overcome and work through this trauma?
  5. How do we overcome our own traumas and take the risks that move writers?


SETTING OUR PURPOSE:

Much of this month’s article is intended to initiate reflection of our writing instruction and how we can ensure that our students know that we aren’t focused on them being right or wrong, but rather how we are focused on accepting them as students and writers in a safe space. Unfortunately, we all live in a world where we expect to be misunderstood or judged, but in the confines of our classroom, we have the power to take away that fear and teach our students to be vulnerable through their writing. As I share the following anecdote, think about the writers you have or have had in the past who are afraid to write–not necessarily the students who don’t enjoy writing–but those who have anxiety around writing because they don’t want to be wrong, vulnerable, misunderstood, or judged. Think of your own students (past or present) as I share…

It was just a few weeks before the holiday break when I learned that I would be getting three new classes next semester (in addition to my three intervention classes) from a teacher down the hall who was going to be fired. There was nothing new about these English I On-Level classes for me, but I knew I would be getting students who had been pressured with writing a large amount and had had their writing scrutinized for 4 months. Within a short amount of time, I saw the fear my students had surrounding writing. They were constantly worried that what they were writing was wrong, even if the prompt or activity was about them or was open-ended or opinion-based. They didn’t seem to be concerned with if they were writing their best, they were primarily concerned with my approval and their grade. This was what they were conditioned to care about and conditioned to fear and I knew I had 4 months to get them to love writing instead. If that was the only thing I accomplished the entire semester, I would be proud.

After years of reflection, I can now put into words how I went about removing this fear and replaced it with a love of writing.. or at the very least, the courage to write. 

“WE HOLD THESE TRUTHS TO BE SELF-EVIDENT”

Let’s begin with a list of truths that we must hold as teachers about our writers if we are going to be able to move students from practicing fearful to courageous writing.

  1. Students want to be smart. If we don’t believe this, then students won’t believe this. Whether a student admits it or not, at the core of every student is a desire to be intelligent and it is our responsibility to believe that–not matter how difficult.
  2. Students do not want information watered down. There is nothing a students dislikes more than having their time wasted. I know what you’re thinking, your time gets wasted all the time. I get it; it’s true. But, at the end of a student’s career, they are going to value learning difficult things more than anything else not school being easy.
  3. All student writing is valuable and therefore beautiful. If we only think in terms of right and wrong writing, then so will students. We have to make the intentional move to treat all writing as valuable and beautiful.
  4. Explaining why is the most important part of writing instruction. We all know that if students don’t understand the value in writing, they likely won’t be committed to the idea of writing at all. “Because I said so” is not an acceptable rebuttal to “why?”
  5. Teacher rhetoric matters. If we want students to be writers who are invested in themselves and curious about language and literature, then we must ensure that our rhetoric demonstrates our belief in their abilities and our own love of writing.

This is where the work starts. We must believe that each of these items is true because these are things that shape the student’s perspective and therefore reality surrounding whether or not we believe in them and their abilities. If we do not believe in these five things and we are not actively seeking a way to communicate our beliefs, then we are sending the message that the opposite is true.

THE ANCHORS & WINGS MATRIX and EXAMPLES

Negative Wings are all about creating a safe space where failures and mistakes can be discussed openly and students can share attempts or drafts that aren’t perfect or their best work without fear of judgment or a bad grade. A great way to start this conversation is by sharing your own writing from a young age, particularly writing that is abandoned, takes risks, or just plain funny. Poetry, narratives, or essays make great examples to share with students to break the ice and talk about what mistakes look like and what risk taking looks like. Any opportunity in which I can make fun of myself is a great opportunity to provide students with the space to reflect on their own writing.

Positive Anchors are strategies or instruction that ground students in the intricacies of the English language while creating opportunities for students to discuss and learn the essentials in a way that drives curiosity and connects language to art or math or science. The structure that I typically start with to achieve this part of the matrix is cursive, Latin roots, and etymology. Believe it or not, my high school freshman, even those in intervention classes who struggle with English, loved practicing their cursive. There was a simplicity in it that focused only on their improvement and their willingness to try that helped open the door for more artistic endeavors and risk taking. And, because I could take something they struggled with at a young age, and show them that they could do it, they learned to trust me when I said they could do something. The same goes with teaching Latin roots. Because so many students struggle with vocabulary (in and out of context), presenting Latin roots as a way for them to dissect language was an opportunity to show students that English can make sense and can be figured out. They especially appeal to students who find math simple and straightforward. Have students who enjoy history class or are interested in current events? Students are paying attention to what is happening in our world and language is so closely connected to history that we can use it to appeal to their interests and the things they dislike. Studying etymology and use of time is a perfect way to make global connections between the language we use and how we view the world.

Negative Anchors take away student voice. And, unfortunately, these are some of the most common practices we see in English because they are easy and believed to provide intervention to students and make learning English “easier.” Formulaic writing, restrictive writing templates, and easy or overly simplified prompts are first on my list because we see this everywhere and all the way up to the state level, mandatory assessments. All of these things assume incapability of students and send the message that we care more about their compliance than their unique voice. We can’t put them in a box and then be surprised when they aren’t creative or willing to take risks.

Positive Wings provide students with the opportunity to work and write without the fear of failure being the primary motivator. They also provide writing opportunities full of freedom and independence. This looks like flexible timelines for assignments that allows students to choose due dates and helping them understand how to ask for extensions and set expectations for themselves.

In next month’s article, I plan to dive into these matrix examples and break down the strategies to teach these skills so that students can start to love instead of fear writing and take more risks. The good news is that we don’t have to completely let go of the things we love about English. There is space in today’s curriculum for the basics and we can use them to gain the trust, confidence, and willingness of our students.

In what ways does the anchor and wing concept apply to what you love and fear about teaching?…what students love and fear about writing?…and how we all contribute to each quadrant of the anchor/wing matrix? What do you want to learn from next month’s article? Add to the conversation anonymously on the Padlet below.

Made with Padlet

Send me your thoughts, reflections, and questions! =) Continue the conversation with me on Twitter @StarianBlake, on Facebook at facebook.com/movingwriters, or email me at starian.porchia@allenisd.org. At Moving Writers, we love sharing our materials with you, and we work hard to ensure we are posting high-quality work that is both innovative and practical. Please help us continue to make this possible by refraining from selling our intellectual property or presenting it as your own.

Thank you!
Starian Porchia

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