Friday, October 3, 2014

Changing my writing tune

I have come to realize two things during this new school year from being at a new school and having a fresh start:

1) Writing with your students isn't just a nice idea; it's a necessity if you want to see their writing improve.

2) Commenting on second drafts instead of final drafts has given my students a way to focus on better revision strategies for their final drafts.

At my former school I touted my expertise to my students and colleagues as the writing guru, citing the seminal work of inspiring teachers that came before me like Tom Romano, Nancie Atwell, and Penny Kittle. But the truth of the matter is, I frequently found myself frustrated with the lack of motivation my students possessed in moving from one draft to the next. The problem? I preached to them my gospel of writing, but I wasn't living it.

This year I am making sure to be mindful that my actions are much more powerful than my words when it comes to assigning writing and have already seen its benefits in spades. I am currently grading my 8th graders' "This I Believe" essays and am so impressed with how much they have revised from one draft to the next and the risks they are taking with their writing. That all happened as a result of writing with them and giving them feedback before their final drafts.

Today, we started a short writing assignment after I showed my class this inspiring video from graphic novelist Cece Bell:
El Deafo is a beautiful book because it takes something that people would normally consider a disability and turns that idea on its head. Cece took her deafness and made it into a superpower. My
8th graders started this assignment earlier this week with a journal prompt about if they were a superhero, what would their superpower be, and were also asked to give themselves a superhero name. Today we took that seed of a journal topic and expanded on it, watching it grow into something more substantive.

The day I assigned this as a journal topic, all three of my classes didn't seem to be all that into it. They wrote a couple sentences in their notebooks and that was that. But today was a completely different story. The one thing that was missing from the equation was me. I hadn't written anything yet. So once again, I had to shed my armor of professional distance to expose the soft, vulnerable underbelly and share with them my rough draft of my superhero power.

Not only did I see I change in motivation from one day to the next, but I also got some really helpful suggestions for revisions of my own writing. I had students coming up to me excitedly sharing their ideas, and also asking me for suggestions. At one point during my first class period, I stopped to listen to the chatter around me and not one conversation strayed from talk of superheros. At one point a student raised his hand and said, "Mrs. Shaum, I think once we're done, we should all share our superhero names and powers and then write a story where they clash with each other."

Oh the sweet, melodious music of writers. I'm so happy I've finally joined the band.

Celebrate This Week was established by Ruth Ayers


  1. Oh I love the superhero writing and I agree with that student...continue it and allow them to borrow each others heroes in their stories. What a great celebration today! Thank you!!

  2. I'm thinking I might have to steal this idea for my class of 8th graders. I'll bet they will love it

  3. This is a great celebration of the power of being a teacher who writes. I am glad you like the experience.

  4. I wish you could come to talk to some of the teachers I work with, Beth. I wrote with my students all the time, & am convinced being in that "together" made all the difference in them becoming writers. So glad you wrote this post for all of us to celebrate!

  5. I was just at a workshop at TC, and Lucy Calkins talked to us about the importance of feedback - quick and relevant feedback - as being one of the most effective ways in which we can move our kids forward. So important to remember! I'm waiting for my copy of El Deafo with great anticipation, Beth!

  6. Oh I am so very excited about this post. First, I just finished El Deafo last night. Wow, wow, wow! And second, I am jumping fully into more writing with my students and love reading other's reflections and thinking. This is a made for me post. Thanks!

  7. This is a great line: " I had to shed my armor of professional distance to expose the soft, vulnerable underbelly and share with them my rough draft of my superhero power." This is a great post and testimony to the power of doing the work you teach!