Today on the Heinemann podcast, we’re packing our bookbags for summer camp!
Teaching writing can feel intimidating, but New York Times best-selling author Jennifer Serravallo says that the best way to be a strong writing teacher is to be a strong writer. And to be a strong writer? Well, you have to write!
Jen is the author of the The Writing Strategies Book: Your Everything Guide to Developing Skilled Writers. This summer, Jenn will be hosting a free interactive, five-week-long online Writing Summer Camp for teachers built around the strategies in her book. Each week she will focus on a different genre of writing to give participants practice across a wide range of writing styles.
But before we get to all of the details, we wanted to talk with Jen about something all writers struggle with: the anxiety around writing…
Below is a full transcript of our conversation:
Brett: So Jen, let’s start with this; why do so many people have anxiety around writing? Why do they consider it so hard?
Jen: Hmm, that’s a good question. I’m sure there’s a lot of different reasons why. I think one of the things, is, when you’re reading, you’re consuming text that someone else has written right? And your interpretations and your comprehension are all in your mind and are kinda kept private unless you choose to talk about them. But when you’re writing, you’re sort of bearing your soul on the page and you’re showing what your thinking is, you’re showing how you write, and if at any point in somebody’s past someone led them to believe they’re not good at writing, then it becomes a really vulnerable thing.
So I think that there are people who feel like it’s hard. And you know it is- I’ll tell you, I have written a lot in my life, a lot of books, a lot of pages, Heinemann can attest to that. But everyday I sit down to write, it takes work, it takes concentration. I love having written, but sometimes the act of writing and sitting down and doing it, it takes a certain kind of muscle.
Brett: When you say that, it sounds a little scary, but at the same time it’s really important for us as teachers to experience this writing before we teach it. Why is that so important?
Jen: Well I think kids are really good at detecting when you’re full of it, first of all. So, if you’re up there telling your kids that this is something that writers do, and then you never actually show your writing to show them how you did it, then they’re gonna know. But I also think that really being able to empathize with students and understanding what it takes to concentrate and stay focused and have stamina when we write, what it takes to come up with your own idea, what it takes to go back and do the hard work of revision, which sometimes means cutting out sentences that you’ve loved and you don’t want to change… it’s so crucial that you have that experience because then when you lean on that to create strategies, to be able to understand where kids are going to hit obstacles and how you can help them out of those obstacles… and then, at the very least you have a demo text ready that you can use, you know, when you’re modeling writing for kids. So, I think that all of those are really important reasons.
Brett: You have an important strategy in the book: how to we silence the “it’s no good” voice?
Jen: I think a lot of writers have that “it’s no good voice” in there -somewhere in there- whispering in their ear. You know, you put something down on the page, and you’re like “ah that’s not it” or “that’s not the word I was looking for” or “no one’s gonna want to read this.” I think it’s so natural that doubt creeps in and really having the practice to work through those doubts and keep trying through it is so important. And, so, one of the ways you know that voice is there is because you’ve experienced it, and then when you can talk to your kids about that… you know, you get the kid who’s a chronic eraser, who’s erasing every word she writes down ‘cause she thinks it’s not right, or the kid who’s just stuck because he can’t spell something and he’s frustrated about that, or the student who can’t settle on a topic because she’s worried that nobody cares what she has to say.
It’s so important that as teachers we try this out, and we experience it, and we figure out what it is that quiets that voice, and what it is that we can do to get past it.
Brett: You mentioned a minute ago the importance of building that muscle through the writing, and even just a few minutes a day makes a huge difference, so, how can we build that writing muscle? What’s the best way to do that?
Jen: It’s to write. You gotta do it. Yeah, that sounds so obvious, right?
My daughter is for the first time ever on a sports team. I signed her up for swim team. She’s very unhappy with me. But her first practice did not go well. She came home in tears. She can actually swim. She’s a decent swimmer, but she has no experience with swimming laps. And the coach just kinda made her go back and forth and back across the pool, and she’s, like, a very dutiful kid, does whatever she’s told and she was like, crying, oh she’s so exhausted… and I had this conversation with her about how you just have to work up to longer distances, and you to listen to your body, and you got to try and work on it. And I think there are so many analogies like that in life whether its, you know, running, or swimming, or, in this case, writing.
You need to put yourself in the position to sit in the chair, to do the work, and then, over time, it becomes easier to do it. The words flow better, uhm, and there’s a lot of writers who talk about the importance of a daily practice, or a regular practice of writing… I personally like carving out whole days for writing, it takes me a little while to get into things and I get going. But there are many people who get up every day, 5:30, set their alarm, they get up, they write for a half hour… In fact, I think I was just listening to a podcast where Kelly Gallagher was talking about that right?
Brett: Yes, yes.
Jen: Am I remembering that right?
Brett: Yes. Yes you are. Yes.
Jenn: Yeah, he does a daily writing practice. And then you know, sometimes the words just don’t flow, other days they do, but the act of doing it regularly, whatever regularly means to you, can be really powerful.
Brett: Well, one way we’re inviting folks to do this regularly is through a special summer camp that you have created for the Facebook group for Reading and Writing Strategies members. Tell us about the camp, tell us how it’s going to work. This is very exciting.
Jen: First of all, I’m just super excited that we’re calling it a camp because I was- I was, like, terrible at kickball, and like often off in a corner making a lanyard, and like, that was about it. So, I’m like, super excited to be leading a camp, because I’m like, I’m the least likely person to be a camp counselor. So here I am. This is like a nerdy version of summer camp.
So, what we’re gonna do, is this: I’m going to offer you an invitation every day to some writing. The invitation’s going to be a strategy, and I’m going to get on Facebook -in our Reading and Writing Strategies Facebook group- I’m going to get on Facebook and I’m going to offer a five-minute mini-lesson on a strategy. My goal is to take you through an entire writing process every week. So, Monday will be about collecting ideas, Tuesday will be about choosing and starting to nurture those ideas, you know, Wednesday might be about drafting and then revision and editing and celebrating. So, across the week we’re going to go through the whole writing process.
I want this to be kind of low pressure and comfortable for everybody, so I’m going to suggest that you commit to ten minutes a day, that’s it. So, five minutes to listen to me explain the strategy, and then ten minutes to do a little bit of writing. And we’ll have a post on the Facebook group so that after you’ve done your ten minutes -or if you’d like to do more you’re welcome to- but, after you’ve done a little try with the strategy, you can reflect and hear from other members in the group how it went for them as well.
We’ll take a week for a different mode and genre of writing, so the first week will be about writing fictional narratives, the second week will be a poetry week, the third will be a blog post, or article week, we’ll do a persuasive letter week, and then the last one will be an open genre, where we’ll focus a lot on reading like a writer. So, if you want to just join for one of the weeks, like if you say to yourself, “it’s my goal to get better at teaching poetry. It’s been neglected all year. I really want to focus on that.”, then you would just join in for the poetry week. But maybe some of you want to try to join for all of the weeks -I will be, I’ll be here- because if you do that, you can start to notice what’s the same across genres, what’s different across genres, it will help you really cement you understanding of different genres… and I think by going through the writing process multiple times, I think you’ll have a better understanding of the process itself as well. And then, of course, not only will you practice your writing and be able to empathize with your students and be able to generate strategies of your own based on what you experience, but, you’ll have you demo text ready to go for the next school year, so that’s an added bonus.
So that’s the general shape of the course.
Brett: It sounds really easy. It sounds really low risk. And I think the beauty of doing this, is you can do it anywhere! You can do it by the pool, you can do it if you’re going on vacation somewhere, you can just do it anywhere!
Jen: That is the idea. And in fact, I don’t know where I’ll be joining you from. I might be at- I might be at the beach talking to you about how to create characters for your fictional narrative, I don’t know. Summer should be kind of free and easy. You might want to take your notebook outside and sit under a tree or join me with a summer beverage in your hand, whatever makes the most sense to you and however you’re most comfortable.
And I will not make you share your writing, but if you want to you can. So, maybe that whole vulnerability thing is a little bit reduced for some people because no one’s looking over your shoulder, and no one’s going to make you share it if you don’t want to. I think there’s so much value in just experiencing it and then talking about what worked for you, what didn’t work for you, what other strategies you can think about based on it… and then to hear from colleagues as well, what other people did, I think will just add to all the different strategies you’re going to bring into the classroom next year.
Brett: So, let’s tackle some housekeeping stuff because we’ve gotten a couple questions this week already about- just sort of making it clear how Facebook groups work and things like that. So, we’re going to tag every one of the posts “Summer Writing Camp” for everyone who’s in the Facebook group. We’re also going to tag it “Writing Strategies Book” so, if you’re looking for these specific posts, we’re going to pin them every day -every time Jen does something we’re going to pin that post to the top. If for some reason you have trouble finding that, there’s an announcements tab on the side of the group which – you can also look there for all of the daily posts that Jen’s going to do. So, if you can’t find it with the tag, or the announcements, we’ll be notifying people as well, so every time you do something, Jen, people will most likely get a notification. If you’re doing a Facebook live they might get a notification, if it’s just a post… so, they should sort of be mindful of that and they should sort of do that.
And then just sort of a little thing that kind of helps people, on every Facebook post, on every status post, to right of every post within the group there’s a little drop-down arrow. If you click on that drop-down spot, you can hit the word “following” and that will notify you every single time someone comments or posts within that thing and that thread -so that you can get a notification about all that stuff. So, if you’re one of those people that just like to put the word “following” in the comments this sort of saves you from having to do that every time. That’s just one more thing to make life a little bit easier for you.
Jen: I think that’s super helpful. Yeah, if you it’s almost like, if you think about Facebook as like, a big filing cabinet, our Reading and Writing Strategies Facebook group is like a file inside of that. So, you go into the file, and then, within that, are individual pages -those are going to be our individual posts- so you can always find it there. We’re not going to delete everything from the file. So, it’s always all there, and you can follow it if you choose to with that drop-down arrow.
I don’t think we mentioned this Brett, but it’s free. Did we mention that?
Brett: We didn’t, we should really make that loud and clear!
Jen: We’re not charging a thing for this. This is just my way of giving back to all of the teacher who have, with such enthusiasm, embraced The Writing Strategies Book, and I just wanted to offer this to all of you as a little give-back over the Summer. So, no charge, join anytime, drop-in, drop-out, but I hope you can commit to the whole Summer because it will be a lot of fun.
Brett: And, I’ve gotten a couple of questions from folks who are teaching summer school, and they’re worried they’re going to miss some of posts. You’re not going to miss anything, it’s all there when you want to get to it later in the day, that’s okay, too. So, if you are teaching summer school, no pressure, come to it when you can.
Jen: That’s right, and I am also not committing to what time of day I’m going to be posting everyday because, you know, it’s Summer! And some days I might want to sleep in or go to yoga in the morning or something like that. So, in my mind my goal is that by midday, but lunch time every day, I will offer the strategy of that day. That’s my hope.
Brett: Good. Alright. And we will have much more information coming up on the blog this week as well, so if you’re hearing this podcast, do also check out blog.heinemann.com, where we will be posting more information about everything we’ve just discussed, as well as of course in the Facebook group, you know, the Reading and Writing Strategies Facebook group which you can get to from the Heinemann Publishing page, or just search the Reading and Writing Strategies books.
Jennifer Serravallo is the author of New York Times bestseller The Reading Strategies Book as well as other popular Heinemann titles, including Teaching Reading in Small Groups; Conferring with Readers; and The Literacy Teacher's Playbook, Grades K–2 and Grades 3–6. Her newest book is The Writing Strategies Book. She is also the author of the On-Demand Courses Strategies in Action: Reading and Writing Methods and Content and Teaching Reading in Small Groups: Matching Methods to Purposes where you can watch dozens of videos of Jen teaching in real classrooms and engage with other educators in a self-guided course.
Jen began her career in education as a teacher in Title I schools in NYC and later joined the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University. Through TCRWP and now as an independent consultant, she has spent over a decade helping teachers across the country to create literacy classrooms where students are joyfully engaged and the the instruction is meaningfully individualized to students' goals.