Encouraging Students to Embrace Their Inner Author

By Victoria Jasztal on October 24, 2009

“In the year 1075, a knight of an order called The Order of the Red Rose was falsely accused of striking a deal with a dragon. The dragon was known as Neborex and wasn’t the friendly type. He lived within a volcanic mountain called Fire River Mountain since it had multiple rivers of flowing lava. Neborex was a fire-breathing black dragon who had a reputation of raiding the village of Golden Rock, which was the knight’s hometown.

These words were written two years ago when I gave my students the freedom to write about whatever they desired for a publishing project. Astounded by this student’s “gift for writing”, I thought about where the quality of where the class’ writing would stand if I had never granted them the freedom or had encouraged them in the first place to write about their “passion”.


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The art of storytelling lives in all of us, and ideas are always flowing through our minds. Naturally, every person possesses the capabilities to become an author because of this “flowing of ideas.” Sharon Creech, Newbery Award-winning author of Walk Two Moons, claims, “A book contains hundreds, maybe thousands of ideas, squirming and changing and evolving as I write.” 

However, not all students are encouraged. Not all students make connections to their real lives as they write, and that is disheartening. You as the teacher, though, can be one of the people in your students’ lives who encourages them to truly embrace writing.

Let’s imagine you are encouraging your students to write a “spooktacular” story for Halloween. They are granted the freedom to approach this story from any angle. However, a (theoretical) student raises her hand and asks in a shy voice, “Is it all right for me to have more than two characters in my story?” You think about the essence of writer’s workshop and answer, “Of course, you can have as many characters as you desire as long as you find a way for them to become involved in the action of your story. You have freedom over every word you write because it is your pencil and paper, not mine.”

When the student heaves a sigh of relief, you may wonder how writing instruction was for her in the past. Had she been limited from what she desired to write about? What if she had this sophisticated plot running through her mind and she was only limited to writing two pages because that would prepare her best for state testing? Though apparently some teachers choose to limit, it may not be what is best for the student in the long run.

Sometimes it confounds me a bit to see a wall of stories that share the same exact plot- written by twenty different students. It seems as if the students have been “coached” to have the same beginning, middle events, and conclusion. Some of the students’ own words are filled in here and there, yet there is no true sense of individuality. It seems like the stories were written more out of compliance. I recall when I was in school and I was given something very specific to write about, I could not think of a strong plot for the life of me. I was chastised for my final piece because it lacked creativity. Obviously, it lacked “passion” because I had not put my heart into my writing. 

Writing should be spontaneous and limitless to an extent. We can learn from the storytellers of the past, who have had a significant impact on society as we know it. They have shaped our perspectives and beliefs. Prior to storytellers, there were cave painters who told sensational stories through carvings. These individuals were never limited to how much they could carve or how many words they could share. Storytellers captivated audiences to where they felt little difference between fact and fiction. Nobody ever set a stopwatch or counted their words. A judging panel never criticized and rated the clarity of their plot.

With the technological revolution, writing has become even more purposeful… more poignant, more obtainable. Lucy Calkins, author of Units of Study for Teaching Writing, claims, “In today’s Information Age, it has become increasingly important that all children are given an education that enables them to synthesize, organize, reflect on, and respond to the data in their world.” Calkins also adds, “Although it is reassuring to realize that teaching children to write well can transfer into improved scores on standardized tests, those of us who put writing at the center of our professional lives do so for far more personal and compelling reasons. When a community of teachers embraces reform in the teaching of writing, teachers often become reinvigorated and renewed in the process. And individual teachers find that teaching writing taps new sources of energy within themselves. Over the years, teachers have continually told me that the teaching of writing has given them new energy, clarity, and compassion, reminding them why they went into teaching in the first place.” The “transfer of energy” from you to your students happens more easily than you may realize.

It is also common knowledge that subjects like Science and Social Studies have been “slighted” to an extent due to preparation for state testing. It is a tad distressing when one asks a colleague what he or she is reviewing in Social Studies and he or she responds, “When do we have time to teach THAT? I am barely getting through my day reviewing reading, writing and math.” You may be in the same predicament, but you can integrate writing instruction into either of these subjects. I have always encouraged writing across the curriculum, though I needed a few years to get a good grasp on writing instruction.

The greatest affirmation to you as a writing teacher is when students tell you they desire to become award-winning authors. I recall one incredible student who wrote about how much writing was purposeless at the beginning of his fourth grade year and how a few of his friends could write well, but he could not. By the end of the year, for our publishing project, he wrote a story that spanned at least eight pages. The following year, he joined our school’s story club and was able to collaborate on an imaginative fantasy tale with a small group of fifth-grade students and our school’s data processor and published author, Judy Cyg. 

The ideas I am about to share integrate a variety of subjects and encourage individuality. A few of the ideas are prompts, yet they are general and encourage students to approach the idea in a variety of ways. Hopefully you will find these ideas useful in your writing instruction.

Writing Mini-Lessons

Beth Newingham, former advisor and current co-author of Teaching Matters, has written on her website, “The mini-lesson is where I can make a suggestion to the whole class… raise a concern, explore an issue, model a technique, reinforce a strategy.”

Writing mini-lessons focus on particular objectives and are intended to lead to “active engagement” (Lisa Fraze). A typical lesson lasts approximately 10-20 minutes. Mini-lessons can be taught either to the entire class, a small group needing to focus on a specific skill, or an individual student. When you think of mini-lessons you want to teach your students, you need to ponder on your students’ strengths, what interests them as writers, where they have struggled, and what you desire for them to improve in the near future.  You should never expect perfection after the first mini-lesson or even a few; teaching mini-lessons is a trial-and-error experience. Some ideas I have compiled over time (either from my own imagination, Melissa Forney, Lucy Calkins, or Beth) are posted at this website- http://teachingvision.org/resources/mlwrite.html.

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Prompts that Encourage Individuality

Since my students must prepare for the Florida Writes, where they write to a prompt in a 45-minute time period and can only write two pages, we do practice with general week-long prompts, though I do not limit the length or the time they have to work on them. (Note: My students have always exceeded the county average when taking the Florida Writes. They are still taught how to write with limitations in place, though this is not the basis of my instruction.)

  • If you could start your own theme park, what would you name it? What are the lands that would be included in the park? Talk about the rides, restaurants, stores and parades that would be included within your park. (Students must still have three main ideas, a grabber and a conclusion when writing this paper. One mini-lesson we focus on prior to writing this paper as well is describing a ride from start to finish with vivid language.) 
  • If you could have the perfect day, what are three things you would choose to do? 
  • What are three things that excite you about the season of fall? 
  • If you could construct your own dream house, what would be included within your house? (This topic was written in an entry a month ago.) 
  • If you could design your ultimate school, what would be included in that school?

Writing Ideas Relating to Science

  • If you could come up with your own invention, what would it be, and how would it operate? Sketch your invention and describe its uses. 
  • Three weeks ago, we dissected owl pellets. Students wrote a journal entry with a sketch about their findings. Writing journal entries about experiments can be interesting. I rarely put limitations on these journal entries; I like seeing what they come up with on their own describing the experiment. I incorporate journal entries for our Halloween science experiments, roller coaster design project, field trip to the environmental center, and rocket launching as well.

Writing Ideas Relating to Social Studies

  • After introducing your students to the history of the R.M.S. Titanic, have them write a story about them being in on the adventure. Have them come up with fictional characters and write about their fateful journey. 
  • Have students write a story or a letter about being involved in a shipwreck. I incorporate this lesson every year after reading the journal entry of Richard Henry Dana. We study shipwrecks because we learn about the conditions of the explorers (Spanish, French and British) coming over to America from their countries in the 1500s. 
  • Drawing also relates to writing. If you study the time of the explorers and the first colonists (I do since we study St. Augustine, “America’s Oldest City”), have your students sketch a plan for a colonial town with a city square at the center and places such as an apothecary, blacksmith, friary and fort. 
  • My students also complete a family tree project every October. Besides completing a poster with pictures of themselves and relatives, they must interview a relative in their family older than them and find out interesting facts about their families. (The photos are small because they include information about the students' families.)

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  • At the beginning of the year, my students wrote to the Department of Tourism for states from which they desired brochures. They had to learn the difference between a formal and friendly letter. 
  • Have students make trading cards of individuals from the past (presidents, conquistadors, native American groups, people involved during the Civil War, the categories are endless).
  • Peruse comic books (graphic novels) with your students. Chester Comix and the Graphic History Series are two history-related series that come to my mind. Additionally, Scholastic has a resource book with comics of the American Revolution, the landing on the moon and more. Maybe then students can create their own comics about an event in history. 
  • Have students write time-travel stories about going back to certain times in history. You may have to be specific and provide a list of possible events.
  • Have students "interview" a person in history, writing down what they believe answers from that individual would be. Model this first, though, to make sure you get quality interviews!

Journalism and Media

Ideas from my “Journalism and Media” website are located here: http://teachingvision.org/resources/jm.html.

Annual Publishing Project

Research has proven that granting students the freedom to write about the topics of their choice provides them greater opportunities to emerge as an author. From time to time, I go through the papers I saved from my school years to locate publishing projects, creative writing attempts, school newspaper articles, and research reports I once took pride in as a young author. Seeing how my own confidence emerged when my teachers encouraged me to develop original prose, I developed a unit in 2006 that helped my students to embrace themselves as authors. The writing from the beginning of this entry came from this project in 2008. View my unit here: http://teachingvision.org/resources/unitplanbookpublishing.htm.

It is my desire to encourage you to think about what has inspired incredible authors over time. Stephanie Meyer had a dream about vampires and werewolves before writing the award-winning Twilight series. J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, was influenced by her past experiences and encouraged by her childhood friend Sean Harris to become an author. Though her first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, was rejected twelve times before it was published, she persisted until she achieved success. Dean Lorey, author of the Nightmare Academy series started out in screenwriting when he wrote a play in college that was shown to a producer his friend knew in Los Angeles. Beverly Cleary, author of the Ramona series, as well as several other books, began as a struggling reader in school, yet in her later elementary years, she was encouraged by her school librarian to write books when she grew up. Lois Lowry, Newbery Award-winning author of Number the Stars, claims she was “a solitary child who lived in the world of books and my own vivid imagination.” Thinking about their childhood encouragement gets me thinking about the possibility of having a former student really become an "award-winning author."

Now that I have provided some “food for thought,” how will you encourage your students in writing class?

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Comments

As a middle and high school teacher, I second the notion that we need to give our students more room for creativity in writing. I tell my students my 2 cardinal rules for writing are: 1) know your audience, and 2) care about your subject. Yet, so often students are forced to follow too strict of parameters so they end up not caring.

... Thank you- I read parts of this post to my students today. I told them, "It is your pen and paper, not mine." Thank you for sharing your two cardinal rules. My students are coming to still understand audiences, but they are doing well in knowing their purpose when they write. - Victoria

Some of my students have been producing some fairly sophisticated writing. They ahve also been very open to going back to their writing and incorporating new ideas from mentor texts and mini-lessons. Although we are early in, I like what I'm seeing.

I like your list of prompts. I've been trying to keep my prompts very open-ended as well, sometimes giving them only a word (e.g. "Bullying") or a portion of a quote to respond to. This has allowed them to make their writing very personal.

... That is absolutely GREAT! I agree with the one-word ideas- I do that from time to time, too. We haven't used too many mentor texts yet (some), but the students in my class have certainly used ideas from their writing binders. It seems as if my students have caught on very quickly this year, though very recently, a few haven't exerted as strong effort as I know they can. However, they are always willing to write; nobody ever claims he or she cannot write at all. - Victoria

Great food for thought, Victoria! Teaching writing has always been the area with which I struggle the most. My students have shown some early successes, and I am encouraged with where some of them will go with their writing this year.

... Thank you! What do you mean by "early successes"? I have realized my students are very organized in their writing this year and for the most part, have great punctuation. They also are not afraid to try new creative techniques, though like any other class at this time, they still have many new things to learn to enhance their writing even more. - Victoria

Love your post!!! I struggle with the "limits" I need to impose in order to teach my students how to succeed for Florida Writes. This year, I have a class of very creative writers who want to tell fabulous stories. How do I get them excited about expository writing? How do I keep the enthusiasm and place "limits" on what they can write? ~Debbie

... How I have gotten my students excited about expository writing is by letting them write about what they desire as long as it is within the format. Before the students write, the class reviews "million dollar words" that can enhance their writing. I have stuck to very general topics like the season of fall and designing a theme park. At times, we do "traditional prompts", but not that often. I would rather my students develop a creative streak first before focus on the limitations. Too often, the limitations come before the creativity. I feel my students will better be "prepared for battle" if they have their "weapons" and know how to use them!! :)

As for the Florida Writes, I wish we knew which type of prompt the state was focusing on this year, yet that is all besides the case. I guess if they did reveal that, some teachers would slight the other type of writing to an extent. - Victoria

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