Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Building Student Identity and Agency as Writers

Any time I have anyone's ear in the children's book publishing industry, I'm always asking for two things: a "Miracle on 34th Street" style marketing vision for the school market (more on that in a couple of weeks) and more information on the backstory of a book, whether it's heavily researched nonfiction or historical fiction, a whimsical poetry collection, or a stirring piece of contemporary realistic fiction. I don't care where the backstory resides (in the back matter, on the author's website, the publisher's) or how it is conveyed (author's note, illustrator's note, sample drafts, video or audio clips). I just want it!  I often have the same questions, regardless of genre, and I've probably written about them on this blog in the past:
  • How did the book come to be? What was the inspiration or the catalyst? 
  • What got left out on the drafting journey? 
  • How did the structure change over time and how did that impact the drafting of the book?
  • What dead ends did the author, editor, and/or illustrator have to navigate? What "turned the ship" around? 
  • If the book was researched, what were the best sources used? The least effective? How did the author come to determine that?
  • What were the big "breakthrough" moments, if any? 
Do the best readers read like writers? I don't know, because we read for so many different purposes. But certainly the best writers do. This is why I really love the "Draft Blog" on The New York Times webpage and the interviews with children's and young adult writers and illustrators archived at Teachingbooks.net.

Last Friday's entry on the Draft Blog, "Failure, Writing's Constant Companion," made me think a lot about children's and teen's identities as writers. Much of the article, perhaps, can only be understood by professional writers and those who live with them. But what is at the core of the article is something essential for teachers and administrators to understand as well. Writing is not simple. Writing is not merely a discrete set of steps and tasks. Writing is hard work. Writing is often about following other people's examples but then putting that all together to do something unique on your own. Writing is something that must be done every day. None of this is easy. None of this is simple. None of this is quick. As we read for many different purposes, we write for many different purposes. How do we get young people to understand the "pivots" that we make when adjusting for purpose and audience?

The final paragraph reads: "You develop strategies to deal with it all. You develop a kind of sixth sense, a detective’s intuition about what will fail and what won’t. But above all, no matter how much you fail, you still sit down at your computer every day, and you keep going."

How do we provide real time for writing every day at school? How do students get real practice, from the primary grades through high school, building a writing identity? Because agency only grows out of identity. And you don't identify with something you only do every so often, and you don't identify with something that doesn't matter to you.

When we think about writing authentic texts in the classroom, at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, we have to think about the time it takes to do that.  If we want students to grow as writers, we need to expect them to read and write, and we need to supply them with both excellent and exemplary reading materials AND actual time to write, rewrite, write, rewrite, etc. And by writing, I mean making their own choices about what they are doing, becoming decision-makers.  I worked at one middle school when I was in graduate school that had multi-age (grades 5-8) writing workshops. What if every class at the middle and high school level had lab time associated with it? Just as you do science in science lab, students can do hands-on social studies work in social studies lab:  close up analysis of primary source documents, research, and writing. English Language Arts lab could be a writing lab for multiple genres. The freedom to do writing workshop at the elementary level exists, but in too many districts, we lack the will to make it happen.

If we want to talk about how we change student writing, we have to think about what it takes to really think like a writer, and it all goes back to identity and agency, the time to cultivate both, and the opportunity to discover what it means to fail as a writer in order to grow as a writer. What might it mean at your school?

Sample Resources from Children's Writers and Illustrators
Melissa Stewart's No Monkeys, No Chocolate timeline 
Matt Tavares's sketches from Becoming Babe Ruth as well as his childhood sketches of Wade Boggs
April Pulley Sayre's video on the backstory and origin of The Bumblebee Queen 

Note: In both Tavares's and Sayre's pieces, they show artifacts from their childhood, which are wonderful catalysts for allowing students to see their own lives as meaningful, as important experiences from which to start writing fiction, nonfiction, poetry, etc.

Next week, I am going to walk through a nonfiction author's or illustrator's backstory to explain how it helps me understand the text as a mentor text for writing or the writing process.

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