What do we do when students are reluctant to write? The most important thing to remember is that it's the conditions, not the kids.
Today on the podcast we're talking about the productive struggle of writing with Kelly Boswell, author of the new book Every Kid A Writer: Strategies That Get Everyone Writing.
In her book, Kelly provides a different approach to writing instruction; one that centers joy, choice, and recognizes that writing is hard for everyone sometimes. When we accept the inherent struggle of writing, and choose to trust kids with their learning, the result may be a pleasant surprise.
Below is a transcript of this episode.
Steph: Thank you so much for joining me today. It's really great to talk to you. I was hoping we could just start with you telling me a little bit about yourself, your work, and the need you saw that prompted you to write Every Kid a Writer.
Kelly: Sure. Thank you for having me. I served as a classroom teacher, a literacy coach, a district title one literacy facilitator, and now I work supporting schools, administrators, coaches, and teachers around the country. And probably the number one question I get most often in my work in schools and my work with districts is what do you do for those kids who just don't seem to like to write or have a hard time getting started or just appear to be what we would call reluctant.
And so this book is really an answer to that recurring question because in my work with schools, I've noticed that even kids in the same school in different classrooms approach writing differently. Some kids do appear to be really reluctant while in the classroom next door, kids are engaging in writing with energy and excitement. And it made me wonder is there something in the way that we approach writing as teachers that can help re-engage all writers and get writers excited about writing and falling in love with writing? So that's why I wrote this book.
Steph: As you just said, one of the main points of this book is that, not only does every kid have the ability to be a writer, but every kid can also struggle with writing even if they are, quote unquote, a good writer and that this distinction between good at writing and being reluctant or struggling, it's not super black and white. So can you say a little bit more about that and why it's important to recognize that?
Kelly: Absolutely. I didn't realize that I myself could be really reluctant until I started writing myself. This is my fifth book, but I remember back when I was writing my first book, in the middle of the book I had this epiphany of, oh my word, I want to check Facebook or go get another tea or just check my email. I'm looking for every excuse not to write. And it dawned on me that many of the students that I had dubbed as reluctant or disengaged were just writers. And part of writing is a little bit of that productive struggle. Sometimes writing just flows and people feel like they're experiencing that flow or they're in the zone, but every writer I know also has moments where they struggle and they feel disengaged and they look for something else to do because writing requires so much of our hearts and our minds.
So I think it's important as teachers for us to understand that when kids have those moments where they're struggling or they're slumping in their chair or they don't seem very engaged, to understand that all writers experience that from time to time. And it doesn't mean they're, quote unquote, a reluctant writer, it means they're a writer and writing is hard.
Steph: Yeah. Writing is certainly hard. I know I struggle myself with it. I like that you point out that even adults struggle with writing, so there's not this linear, like okay, we're kids, we're young, we're learning and then we just arrive and writing is so easy. So why is it so important to as adults, and especially as teachers, look at our own difficulties and our own reluctance to write?
Kelly: Yeah. I think that that helps us approach kids with empathy and gives us the ability to encourage writers because we know what they're going through. Before I was a writer myself, and before I really embraced writing every day in front of my students, I was kind of judgy. I would see kids that weren't writing and I would say things like it's writing time, pick up your pencil and get your pencil moving until I started writing myself and then I realized, wow, so much of writing is sitting and thinking. That's not an excuse to say, well just let them sit there and think the whole writing time.
I'm not saying that, but once I started writing myself, I started realizing it's not a sit down and the writing fairies sprinkle pixie dust on you and out of your fingers flow all this writing. There's a lot of discipline and struggle. There's a lot of stopping and starting. There's time to think. And I think when teachers engage in writing themselves, they can see kids in a different light and have a little bit more empathy rather than being judgy that they're not writing.
Steph: I think demonstrating our own struggles and demonstrating writing can be really helpful. You mentioned that a lot in your book. You had this really great quote that a demonstration is more powerful than a description, which really struck me because I think imagining, demonstrating writing, writing feels so personal and internal, so I'd love to hear about those strategies that you offer teachers to actually demonstrate their own writing in class.
Kelly: Yeah. I think that that idea of a demonstration being more powerful than a description, if you think about trying to teach a kid to tie his shoe, it'd be almost impossible to just stand next to them and describe to them you're going to make a loop with the right hand lace and then you're going to bring it across and you're trying to describe it. Even if your description is really quality, the kid's going to have trouble tying his shoe. What you need is a shoe in front of you so that you can describe while you're actually doing it and thinking aloud. So the same principle is at play with writing as well because oftentimes, we as teachers describe to kids what they should be doing when they're writing or describe to kids what writers do, but very rarely does a child see another writer crack open his thinking and demonstrate how he's getting an idea from his head to the page. So I think that making the invisible process visible to kids is really powerful.
Oftentimes kids think writers just sit down and the ideas just flow, but to actually have another writer crack open their thinking and say, this is what's going on inside my head and this is what I'm going to get down on the page. I'm not sure I love it, but I'm just going to get it down and I can come back to it later, once a child or any writer sees another writer do that, it kind of demystifies the whole process and helps kids see that this is something I can do because I've seen someone else, not only describe it, but demonstrate what this is like.
One of the things to think about when you're demonstrating, and one of the things I encourage teachers to do in the book, is to plan what it is you're going to model. What kind of writing am I asking my kids to do and what element of this kind of writing are they struggling with? So for example, in kindergarten, if I'm asking my students to create informational writing and they're just drawing pictures, then what I want to model is how I can use drawing and labels and words to teach my reader even more about my topic. So if you see that kids are struggling, perhaps they're only drawing, but not adding labels or words, then in your modeling you can say, I'm trying to picture here, but watch me as I think about some labels or words that I could add to help my reader.
An upper grade example might be if you're having kids create an opinion piece and they've got their opinion and they've got their reasons, but it's all just one big, long paragraph, then I can, in my modeling, demonstrate how I break those sentences into paragraphs to make it more organized and clear for a reader. And so when I go to model, I'm going to show them that process because it's something that I'm seeing my students struggle with.
And then you'll want to show kids too how you lean on the work of other writers. So in my modeling, I always try to show them how I'm noticing another writer. Whether that's a published writer or another student that's tried something, I want to show them how I look at that, what that writer is saying, but how they're saying it and I can emulate that, not imitate that, but emulate that in my own writing so that kids understand that this is a strategy they can use the rest of their lives. They can look at the work of other writers to help them make their writing stronger.
Steph: So I think sometimes it can be a little intimidating or people can feel apprehensive about getting more creative with writing instruction when we have to deal with standards, whether they're local, state, or national. So how does this approach that you lay out in Every Kid a Writer fit in with, or actually work alongside with some of these standards?
Kelly: Yeah, there's a narrative out there that teaching used to be so fun and creative and freeing and then the big, bad standards came along and now we're all doing really boring stuff. But I think that's a false narrative. In fact, the more I look at state, local, national standards, the more I see that there's a lot of room for teacher choice, student choice, teacher creativity, student creativity. The standards aren't telling us how long pieces have to be, how many paragraphs they have to be, there's nothing in the standards about a topic sentence or three supporting details. Many of the things that teachers assume writing has to have I'm not finding in the standards. What I'm finding instead is we want kids to be able to introduce a topic, organize it in a way that makes sense to a reader, and have a concluding statement or section for example.
So within those standards there's still all this room for choice of topic, lots of support and guidance from adults. So the standards, I think it's important for us to understand that we need to shift the narrative and understand that we can have joyful, engaging writing classrooms and still be aligned to standards. It just takes a little bit of dignity to see what the standards actually are so that you understand, oh, this is doable. Sometimes we fear what we don't know.
Steph: Yeah. I think shifting the narrative is really, really important, especially when it comes to standards. You also write a lot about creating space for children to write and to take risks and ask questions, try new things in their writing. And in writing, at least I'll speak for myself, I think a lot about, okay, what mental space am I going to create for myself. You actually talk about making physical space for writing. And of course so many people are doing remote or blended learning, so how can we help create physical spaces when we are in this confusing and stressful online environment?
Kelly: Yeah. I first want to say that because it's evolving and confusing and a little bit chaotic times, that giving kids choice when it comes to space is even more important because none of us do our best work when someone says, sit in this chair and use this paper and use this kind of writing utensil and write about this topic for this long. I don't think any of us would do our best work. So I think that we always had a false sense that we had control. We never did have control, but now we know for sure we don't have control. So giving kids the choice of spaces, they don't need to be sitting in a straight back chair at a desk to do their best writing. So even inviting kids, if you're teaching remotely, to find a comfortable place that they feel good as a writer. And it may take some figuring out.
I did some writing sitting up on my bed with my laptop on my lap for a while and it took a few days to realize this is killing my neck and I'm not doing my best work so I switched to a different environment. So trusting that kids will find a space that works for them as a writer, and it might not be the space that you would choose for them, but if they're on a laptop or if they're on an iPad, if they're on something, a Chromebook, that can be moved, allowing them to move their device that they're using to a space that's comfortable for them where they can be relaxed and alert and do their best work. So providing that choice, I think, is really key, especially now.
Steph: Yeah, absolutely. And I totally agree. And you just talked about how important choices with our writing space, but I was hoping you could talk a little bit more, maybe this would be a good point to end on, is why is choice so important just in writing generally and to help kids take ownership over their education?
Kelly: Yeah. I think the premise of this work requires us, as adults and teachers, to trust children, to trust, honor, and respect children. Don Graves said, when we give kids a writing prompt, we assume a common experience that is not often shared. So for instance, just because it's October, I don't need to tell kids with all right about apples. And today we'll write about what's your favorite kind of apple and tomorrow we'll list describing words about apples. That assumes everyone loves apples, has had apples, doesn't have an apple allergy, I mean it assumes all these things.
So if we have a varied group of learners in front of us, they're going to have a varied list of topics that they know a lot about and that they care a lot about. So even letting kids choose a topic that they know a lot about and care a lot about, then they'll have a lot to say, helps kids reenergize with the work and reengage with the work with joy and purpose because they feel like their voice, their topics, their opinions matter. And then I find that even just giving kids that little bit of choice, the energy is greatly improved.
Kelly Boswell has many years of experience as a classroom teacher, staff developer, literacy coach, and district literacy specialist.
Her latest book, Every Kid A Writer, will be available in October 2020. She is the coauthor of Crafting Nonfiction and Reading Solutions and the author of Write This Way and Write This Way From the Start. She is also the author of several nonfiction children’s books.
Kelly works with schools and districts around the country to support educational leaders, coaches and teachers. Her emphasis is on developing literacy practices that help students become joyful and passionate readers and writers.