Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Secret To Getting Every Student Excited About Writing

I often lament how infrequent it is that student work is actually published as I did in these two posts.
- Just Say Yes to Publishing! Exposing The Man Behind the Curtain If He’s Still Saying No.
- 21st Century Educators Don’t Say, “Hand It In.” They say, “Publish It!

During a recent outreach to my personal learning network about this issue Susan Ettenheim shed some light on the issue which is close to her heart. Together with Paul Allison, Susan is involved in a site called Youth Voices (a social network where students and teachers work together to create student-to-student conversations and collaborations). She shared this insightful idea which she and Paul had been discussing.

A lot of student writing is of little interest to anyone beyond the teacher.

So, I reflected about my own experience as a writer and teacher of writing and I realized just how on target this insight was. Upon reflection I remember clearly the day I accidentally got extremely reluctant writers enthusiastic about writing. It was 1997 and I was a first year teacher working as a library media specialist. I loved my work. I got to see students all day and help them learn and explore using books, videos, and a lab full of computers I had donated from a company who was upgrading their technology.

On this day Dr. H’s class came to see me. This was a special education class of middle school students in Harlem with below average IQs. Writing was not high on their favorite activities list, yet on this day I had students that were begging for, no, demanding writing mini lessons, engaging in unprovoked peer review, turning to dictionaries and synonym finders, looking up grammar rules, etc. In fact, I just couldn’t pull them away from their writing. Not only that, once I unlocked the key to my new writing enthusiasts, I had them begging to come see me to do more writing all year long...even during lunch, before school, and after school.

So, what got EVERY student so excited about writing?

I helped my students set up email accounts. A revolutionary concept back in 1997 and one that is still elusive in some schools today. I told the students what their email addresses would be and walked them through setting up the accounts with their own passwords. The accounts followed the same format so they easily knew one another’s email address. I had tossed names in a hat to get things started and the students had to write to the person whose name they drew sharing something they either admire about that person or have learned from that person. The person they wrote to should respond in kind.

The next thing I knew I had flying fingers in a silent classroom except for the excited squeal as one student or another was informed, “You’ve got mail.” All the kids were writing to each other and excited as heck when they got mail. They cared what they wrote and wanted it to sound good. Some wrote emails to family members who didn’t live with them and sometimes did not have consistent mailing addresses. Students were able to help their families set up email so they could stay in touch and they knew places in all communities (i.e. the library) where they could access the internet. Sometimes students just wrote to their parents about something that happened n school that day. Students were excited to connect with each other as well as their families like never before and the momentum never died. The rules of written communication followed that of spoken communication and students knew there were consequences for inappropriate behavior. The students didn’t want this privilege taken away and we didn’t have a single issue of misuse.

I then remembered another really popular writing activity. I had a 5th grade class that had a lot of complaints about the school. I invited the students to write a letter that would go to the school principal and district leaders. I wish I had saved this! They all wrote the improvements they’d like to see and submitted those. These became bullets in the letter and as a class we came up with an introduction and conclusion. The letter was sent and a follow up presentation was scheduled to share the student’s proposed ideas.

Both of these writing activities obviously have something in common.
  • They are real.
  • They affect kids lives.
  • They have real audiences.
  • The desire to write comes from the student, not the teacher.
How much of the writing kids do in school has these qualities?
How can we change this?

An idea comes to mind for me. What if we used the real mediums in which kids write to teach literacy in those areas. Perhaps a curriculum could include something like this:

Ten types of writing your students will want to do

  1. Email writing
  2. Facebook updates and comments
  3. Tweeting and replying
  4. Discussion Boards - Replying and initiating topics
  5. Commenting on blogs
  6. Writing a guest post on a blog
  7. Commenting in newspapers or magazines about subjects of interest
  8. Writing an article for a newspaper or magazine about a subject of interest
  9. Writing to persuade someone / some place to do something you want them to do
  10. Writing to teach others how to do something and knowing how to reach those who care
Not every student will want to engage in all of the above types of writing, but what if instead of an artificial curriculum map filled old-style writing that wasn't interactive, we did something different. What if instead we let authentic purpose and passion drive our writing curriculum. What if we let students help decide the kind of writing that is important to them? What if we let students write for reasons they’d need to write in the real world.

While these suggestions might seem to apply to secondary school students only, there is application for younger students as well. In fact my fourth and fifth graders were some of my most avid emailers back in 1997.

However, it seems it may be more difficult to develop authentic writing experiences for younger students, but there certainly are ways. I think back to when I started my blog. Every post had an audience of at least one person in my mind and that was okay. Instead of writing something and emailing it to that person, I wrote something and sent them the link to my blog. Every student has a built in audience beyond the teacher who genuinely cares about what they have to say and that is their friends and family. What if we shifted the idea of teacher as contrived audience and always asked students to think of a real person(s) to think of before they wrote and their writing would be a gift to that person(s). In some cases this audience might also serve as a peer reviewer and someone, other than the teacher, to talk about their writing to. Imagine students talking to their parents, grandparents, siblings, etc. about a piece they’re writing for them. There is a real person who cares. This person in essence also becomes the teacher’s helper and perhaps even an editor for the student. If this person is family, you’re also working to build the home/school connection.

Now, what about the use of social media with young ones? Not possible, right? Well not really. Early childhood students are closely connected to one of the largest group users of social media. Their parents. In fact, this is exactly why first grade teacher Erin Schoening decided to start using Facebook with her first grade students and their families. She has had tremendous success using this platform as a communication tool with students assigned daily to update an authentic audience of families as to what is going on in their class. Ms Schoening and students parents were constant writing guides in helping to share a well-written message to the classes audience.

The key to unlocking writing passion is simple. We must shift our thinking and move from viewing students as people who we are teaching to learn to write and instead move to regarding students as real writers who we are supporting in their craft.

So how will you be doing this with your students this year?


  1. Thanks for the wonderful post! Your information speaks directly to a workshop on digital writing workshop that I am teaching this year and will be sure to use it! THANKS!

  2. @Mrs. Fleming, thank you so much for sharing that you'll use this post. Interestingly enough this post was written as a result of a writing workshop where we were discussing the issue of authentic publishing and why it is so difficult.

  3. I agree with giving students a purpose to write that is such a part of their daily lives,ie, using digital tools. My ESL students had many opportunities last year to become authors in the digital world. Their work was read by their peers, their families and their relatives in their home countries. That gives them a very real purpose for writing and publishing!

  4. Please join us in responding to the voices from the gulf and publishing with us at too!

  5. Boil it all down: when it comes to writing (and most other subjects), replace the word "Teacher" with "Coach."

  6. I love Xtranormal as a Web 2.0 tool to engage learners with writing creatively. Bob and Sue are two adult learners returning to HE where they discuss their experiences and frustrations. The series are available on the UK Open Uni Educational network site cloudworks

  7. Hi! I'm a freshman at a prestigious science-focused school in New York City. I absolutely love writing with a passion, but I'm not sure others do. Our school does have a literary magazine, but it's getting less and less students and I know it will eventually fade away.

    I do not want this to happen.

    How do you think I can get my peers excited about writing again? What can I do to get the school excited about our literary magazine?

    Thank you.