From day one, I call my class a “writing community” or “writing studio,” and our job is to produce, share, tell, and read stories. I tell them that writers in the world pay thousands of dollars to attend conferences or retreats to find other writers to create a safe, art-sustaining community in which to share their stories. This—I open my arms and swing about the room—is all spectacularly free.
“This class is special,” I say. “We’re going to write and say things in this class that you’ve never said or written in any other class yet in your high school career.”
They may or may not buy that. It doesn’t matter. You have announced the specialness of your intentions, you have piqued their interest, making outrageous claims. You must be crazy. At least this class won’t be boring, they think.
“Good writing comes from the heart and the soul. We will not examine our hearts and souls lightly. We will examine them with gravity and kindness and clear eyes. We will write with a reverence for the act. And what we talk about in room 303 stays in room 303,” I say.
Secrecy, hmm. Their eyes might light up a bit. They’re not sold yet, of course. That comes later. But I have stated that our community exists to bolster each one of them in the heartbreaking, joyous act of unearthing and rendering life stories.
A great way to build a community that will support and bear witness to those stories is to tell your students exactly what’s up from day one. Transparency is its own reward. They’ve been in classes where students had to “do” projects at the end of a teacher-directed unit, so it’s imperative they understand your class is different. Tell them they get to choose their own writing topics and projects. Tell them you will provide them with a clear path for managing those projects from beginning to end. Tell them that although this kind of classroom works as a community, there will be large chunks of individual work time devoted to their projects, to meeting the expectations they set for themselves. Assure them their decisions about read- ing and writing will be independent, but not blind.
“I will help you find good stuff to read,” I assure them.
“I’m intrigued,” they will say.
“You should be,” I say back.
Then I draw a giant mess on the board with paisleys and daggers and lightning bolts and stars and numbers and random words like memory and values and language and that one time and cats.
“This is what I carry around in my head,” I say. “This is probably what you carry around in your head.”
They nod, knowingly.
“How do you get this out of your head and get it on the page so that it makes sense and communicates something of value to another person?”
“A graphic organizer?” the yearner on the front row says.
“Voodoo,” the smartie in the back row says.
“If I told you project management, would you turn me off?”
Some nod immediately.
“It sounds cold and sterile, right? Something you do at an office or a factory, not something you do in a writing class, right?” Nods all around.
“What if I told you that project management is the way that real writers produce books and essays and screenplays? What if I told you Pixar used project management to produce Toy Story and J.J. Abrams used it to write The Force Awakens? And what if I told you project management is a way you could fail at writing, maybe even fail over and over while you figured out how to write, and you wouldn’t fail this class?”
Eyebrows cocked. A few “what you say” side-eyes.
“We have thirty-six weeks in school. That’s six nice tidy units of six weeks. Each six weeks, you get to pursue any project you would like, any topic, any genre, any length. I only set the final deadline for the project. All the other dead- lines are up to you and the community of writers in this class.”
“I’ll help you find an idea that you want to write about, but it’s up to you to be on the lookout for writing ideas. Writing ideas are everywhere. You probably encountered at least three this morning before school. Remember, it can be anything.”
“On any topic?”
“That’s one of my favorite topics.”
“The deep web?”
“Of course. And once you’ve figured out a writing idea, you’re going to pitch it to the class.”
“Like a sales pitch?” Front row, again with all the answers.
“That’s right. It’s a lot like a sales pitch, except it’s a writing idea pitch. The class will ask you questions about it, and then vote if they think you should write it.”
“They’re going to vote?”
“Yeah, but with kindness and cheering. There might be cupcakes involved. Remember, we’re all in this together.”
There’s something about being completely transparent about the under-pinnings of your classroom that creates immediate buy-in with students. At the beginning of the year, I model a miniproject, and students select a small writing idea they would like to pursue. The purpose of this is to merely introduce them to the seven steps of the project-based writing flow, not for them to master it. That’s what the rest of the year is for.
This is just to whet their appetite for what’s to come.
To learn more about Project-Based Writing and download a sample chapter, visit Heinemann.com.
Liz Prather is a writing teacher at the School for Creative and Performing Arts, a magnet arts program at Lafayette High School in Lexington, Kentucky. A classroom teacher with 21years of experience teaching writing at both the secondary and post-secondary level, Liz is also a professional freelance writer and holds a MFA from the University of Texas-Austin.