When we teach students to express themselves well in writing, we are doing so much more than simply helping them to do better on school assignments. We are giving them tools so that they can express themselves to the world in the best ways possible. When we teach students to become better writers, we are teaching them to become better thinkers. We are teaching them to connect ideas, to unpack arguments, to angle details, and to draw conclusions. Perhaps most importantly of all, we are teaching them that what they have to say matters.
Many students feel powerless in their environments. They don’t feel they have a voice, or a place in the world to share it. In writing workshop, we can teach them that they do have power, the power of words, and they do have a voice, a voice they can use for good. Any writing unit in which students are taught to choose and grow their own ideas (every unit in the Units of Study for Opinion/Argument, Information, and Narrative Writing, that is) will help students to find their voices. But there are some that are more specifically angled toward helping students to identify and express their opinions on topics that matter to them. These are:
Inquiry science entices students to think deeply about what they’re observing and to ask questions. How do we help students develop and deepen those questions as the core of their science stories? One effective way to do this is by facilitating student-to-student discussions, giving them the time and space to explore their ideas and to probe each other’s thinking.
In his latest book, Embarrassment, And The Emotional Undelife of Learning, Tom Newkirk digs into the roots of what inhibits us as learners in and out of the classroom and offers strategies and practices that help kids and teachers alike develop a more resilient approach to embarrassment. Tom says "I contend that if we can take on a topic like embarrassment and shame, we can come to a richer, more honest, more enabling sense of who we are and what we can do." The following is adapted from Tom's chapter on shame in the math classroom.
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When I mentioned the title of the chapter, “Math Shame,” to a fellow editor, she replied, “Actually I feel no shame at all. I’m just not good at math and I’m fine with that.”
There is probably no other required subject area, that we so regularly divide into the haves and have-nots—the ones good at math and then the rest of us. Math class is the motherland of the fixed mindset. For most of us, math never becomes a language, something that we can be fluent in. I suspect that for proficient math students equations must feel like sentences, as if there is a ready and seemingly natural syntax at their disposal.
Students may feel anxiety when the dial is turned to pure mathematical formulation too soon. And it occurs when the goal, always, is getting the exact right answer— when a good approximation will do.
In 2005, I attended a summer teaching institute for the humanities. Over the course of the week, the twenty-five participants grew to learn more not only about the subject matter we were studying but also about the teaching contexts that vary so widely in our state. At the time, I was teaching in one of my state’s neediest districts, and I saw my attendance at the institute as a way to be certain I was doing right by my students. At the end of the week, as we were sharing ways we could use what we had learned to create new units for our students, a woman who was a supervisor at a nearby district said to me, “Wow. I didn’t know your district had teachers like you. I would have hired you.”
This comment stunned me. First, I realized that she assumed I was teaching in my district because I had been turned down by other districts. But I had applied only to the district I was teaching in: I had been looking for a change and a challenge. Second, in that moment I understood how the larger world saw my colleagues and me—because we taught in what was labeled a failing school district, we were failures, also.
Educators are granted the incredible gift of revision, a chance to reflect on and refine instruction year after year. Try again. Do over. Make better. At its core, education is a creative process, facilitated by a teacher and constructed by the student community. It’s a meeting of the minds.
In the fall we aim for instruction that will introduce the fundamental concepts we’ll nurture across the year. I’m dedicated to creating a classroom where student ideas and voices are the foundation of our daily discussions.
Guilty as charged. I can recall numerous times when I asked a student, “Are you ready to publish your writing?” I swiftly sent them off to rewrite, type, or illustrate their work. That writing was then retired to a class bulletin board, or even worse— my desk. Done. That was the end of that piece. It now belonged to me. Lee Heffernan has shown me the error of my ways.
Lee’s book speaks to the idea of student empowerment, accountability, meaningful writing, revision, and publishing. Her work essentially shows us how to move students from fake writing (writing that is just for the teacher) to writing that has purpose and passion. Lee manages to marry process and product in a way that will inevitably set a new standard for writing instruction for teachers everywhere. Her work breaks ground with tenets that shift our writing instructional norms and inspires students.