The Writer’s Workshop: Creating Community and Helping Students Find Their Voices

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” -Maya Angelou

“…let that page come out of you–/Then, it will be true.” -from Theme for English B, by Langston Hughes

One of my fondest memories of childhood is the burning desire I had to tell stories, writing them on old notebook paper I found in my father’s plumbing shop.  The blue lines had faded into blurs, but it was on these pages that I began developing my craft as a writer.  I always felt that there was a story inside of me that I needed to tell, and as a 9th grader, I wrote my first book entitled The Silver Box. It was terrible. If memory serves, there was a woman whose husband died from some malady or unfortunate circumstance, which, I suppose, is the cause of every death recorded in the history of humankind.  Whatever the cause, one I can’t recall at this moment, my protagonist was distraught. She developed depression and angst until a cliched hero seduced her right out of her depression, and she wrote a beautiful poem that garnered such acclaim that she not only attained celebrity but also the power to overcome the death of her husband.

One thing is certain: I was compelled to write, and although it turned out to be horrible prose, I had to get the story out on paper.  We only begin to get better as writers when we write something down and when we have the tenacity to accept feedback that will help us grow.  I’ve written multiple stories, poems, novel attempts, and blog posts since 9th grade, and with each one, my writing skills and voice have strengthened.  I still cringe when I ask someone to critique and edit my work, but if it stays in my hands, it will stagnate. Trying my hand at different genres of writing, including blogs, poetry, and prose, has increased my awareness of my own skills, my strengths and limitations as a writer. This awareness lends itself beautifully to the teaching of writing.

Students come into my classroom with varying gifts, ones that I have to utilize if I am going to help hone their skills as writers. I don’t want inane essays from them. I want vibrant, complex writing that has voice, and I want them to ache with caring about what they write. I have been guilty of asking students to write from their hearts, but not giving them a chance to develop their unique writing voices by writing about things that matter to them.  When writing comes from the heart, it becomes personal. I want students to write with feeling and conviction, but I know that a workshop environment includes a certain amount of risk: students have to feel comfortable sharing their ideas with their classmates and with me. This year, I knew I had to start differently. They needed to begin writing on day one, learning the language of writers and beginning to understand how to draft a piece of writing for an intended audience.  Together, we comprise the audience, the ones who will give them feedback and help strengthen their writing. We have to be a community.  To develop this feeling of community and demonstrate the risk I want them to take, I decided to share my own writing with the class, a daunting, yet necessary action to set the tone for a successful writing class.    

I took my cue from Penny Kittle, a writer and teacher who has inspired the preponderance of my methodology. She suggests using I’m From poems, a type of poetry that encourages students to think about where they come from, the things that make them who they are.  In the days leading up to class, I began crafting my poem, pulling from distant memories, heartache, joy, and hope. My goal was for them to begin establishing voice in their writing by selecting tones appropriate to their topics. Never before have I shared such an intimate work with my students, and I experienced the near palpable fear that comes from opening yourself up to new people, new students. I was confident, however, that this would help establish the environment conducive to writing and revising. It was a risk I was willing to take. (A copy of my poem can be found at the bottom of this post.)

Students were asked to access my poem on our class website. I read it aloud to them because I wanted them to hear the fluency of poetry. As a group we discussed tone and purpose. Embedded within my own poem were sections of grief and heartache, hope and resilience. I asked them where they noticed these tones in my writing, then asked them to prove their argument. We spent time conversing about the positive moments in my stanzas and the places where love and hope converge.  They noticed my voice in the poem, and although the conversation could have lasted longer, I wanted them to practice with writing their own poetry, finding their own unique writing voices.  

I only gave them ten minutes to write, but in those moments of quick writing, they found a voice; they found what mattered to them. One student wrote about her father, a man who wants nothing to do with her, but she was hopeful that they would cross paths again. Another student explained her frustration with her family, promising to make better choices as she learned to navigate the “ropes of life.” One young man explained how school was frustrating to him because he always seemed one step behind, but he stated that he was “from never giving up.” At this point in the year, building community is crucial.  I need students to see me as a fellow writer, as someone who is still working to cultivate his writing abilities.  My willingness to share personal work and invite them into my writing life creates community where students feel free to share their own stories and find their voices.

It has been a week since that poetry assignment, and since then we have started studying memoir, looking for the stories that we want to share. Students must find their writing voices in our classes, but if we fail to create a sense of community, they will not be willing to take risks.

We all have stories inside of us that we want to tell, and through writing, revision, more writing and more revision, I know each student will create a powerful narrative. Essays about symbolism, characterization, theme, and syntax are important; students will encounter such assignments as high school and college students. I am convinced, though, that unless we help them find their own stories, find the things that matter to them, they will not develop as writers.  

For students to become decent writers, they have to be given varying types of writing assignments; otherwise, they have no chance of finding their voices. If we fail to create a community of writers in our classes, students will write, but only because we’ve asked them to.  Their essays, papers, and responses will lack vision and voice. As your students write this year, give them opportunities to explore who they are. Give them space and time to find the right word, to check with a friend, to build a sentence, to craft a paragraph.  Give them the chance to see you as a developing writer, still honing your skills as you write your heart out.  Let them see you as unafraid to take risks with your own writing, and your willingness to share drafts of your work.  Listen to their suggestions.  Make them a part of your writing community.  If they see you as a part of the community you have built, they’ll be more willing to take risks with and without you.  They’ll write their hearts out, too.  And they’ll find those voices that are yearning for freedom and purpose, those voices waiting for us to show them a way out.

T

I’m From by Mr. C

I’m from Hiddenite, a small place nestled in the hills of North Carolina,

Where old streets crumble and crack from years of use.

I’m from loving parents,

From ones who raised me to be my very best.

My preacher father,

And Sunday School mother

Built a home

That held what was sacred.

It was full of life, family, and love.

 

I’m from music and song,

The instruments and voices blending,

In church

Or a front porch,

And the hatred I had for music lessons and practice.

From sarcasm and wit,

And having my mouth smacked when I was smarter than my parents.

 

I’m from the outdoors, from travel.

Camping and fishing for days

In a beautiful wilderness,

Removed from civilization, with nothing but time

To enjoy family and the beauty of the woods.

 

I’m from an alcoholic grandfather

Who hardly knew I existed,

Who preferred verbal abuse instead of knowing

And understanding his family.

He was a man I never really knew.

 

I’m from teaching and learning,

Always determined to share the value of an educated mind.

I’m from wisdom and experience,

Of knowing that nothing is lost in despair

Unless you allow it to be.

 

But most of all…

 

I’m from books and reading,

From a solid belief that books are windows and doors

Into gorgeous worlds of imagination.

That through reading we will grow to understand

The world around us,

And the colors and differences that make up the faces

Of the human race,

Will be our strength, our story, our glory.

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