“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories.” -Anne Lamott
The day I decided to share my personal writing with students, I was mortified. Never before had I crafted, photocopied, and shared any of my work with a class. I had also never asked students for feedback on a piece of writing. But this year was different. If I wanted my students to be real writers and readers, they had to emulate the practices of real writers and readers. I renounced the worksheets and formulaic writing practices that used to dominate my classroom, and with my students, we studied author’s craft by analyzing articles, book chapters, poems, and short stories. Getting to this point, however, took courage and a recognition that my students and I shared the same fears about writing.
I knew that conversations about reading and writing were where the real connections were made; however, the dialogue in reading conferences with students unearthed stories of suffering for which there was little to no resolve. They were reading books about controversial topics such as teen pregnancy, drug abuse, physical abuse, and foster care. I would ask them how they related to these books, and they were honest, but they would whisper, afraid that others would hear. Like many teachers, I have students who are dealing with emotional angst, trauma, even probation; for them these issues are daily battlegrounds. They connected with the books because they saw themselves in the characters, and they could empathize with the pain and anguish often pervasive in young adult literature.
In the midst of their problems, I was still expecting them to attend class and internalize curriculum, a necessity for passing my class and preparing for a future of writing and reading. Internalizing content doesn’t really matter, though, when you’re facing problems like these kids. Survival was what mattered, and editing a poem or reimagining an opening paragraph in narrative carried little weight. During writing workshop, I noticed limited engagement as they pecked away on their Chromebooks, just fulfilling an assignment, biding time until the class ended. Try as I might, they were unwilling to converse about current events, poems, or even short stories. I was certain that they would find the morbidity of Poe’s Annabel Lee delightful and Gaiman’s opening paragraphs in The Graveyard Book lush with imagery. These texts have captivated students of mine for years. With this group, attempts at large group discussion elicited very little conversation, and when they responded through writing, they wrote superficial sentences, scratching the surface of the narratives. I even asked them to create storyboards and character sketches based on these professional works, but they just weren’t interested in drafting something worthwhile. Finally, I realized I was the problem.
The writing I was asking them to complete held no value for them, and my class could hardly be considered a workshop environment. I was giving them space and time to write, but I was still trying to control the outcome. They needed a chance to connect with the act of writing. In Read Write Teach, Linda Rief (2014) spoke eloquently about the importance of meaningful writing. She wrote, “My job is to help them find that writing and that reading that matters so much to them that they want to keep writing and they want to keep reading” (p. 1). My shortcomings were easily recognizable: I had not given my students a foundation for writing, one that would carry them throughout the year. Writing about literature is a necessary skill, but without the fundamental experience of writing from their own lives, topics about which they were experts, they had no investment in the writing process. They had to start by writing about experiences that held value in their lives. That was the writing that would matter to them.
Although I had not started my workshop in the most engaging way, I believed I could change its course and get them interested in writing. Penny Kittle (2008), in Write Beside Them, explained the importance of beginning with story because “it is the most accessible form for writers” (p. 12). My students are the experts of their pasts, and fusing that expertise with writing would empower them, giving them confidence, showing them that stories unite with readers (p. 102). Personal narratives are powerful, and with the right blend of words, writers can craft passages with vivid imagery. Getting them to write about the hardships they endured would not be an easy task, but Kittle’s words about modeling our writing for our kids resonated in my mind as I planned for the next few days of instruction. And I wrote a memoir to share with them.
One of my most agonizing memories from childhood was the day I felt censure because of my family’s financial situation. It was a painful, embarrassing moment; caustic words are emblazoned on the fabric of my memory. Each of us in that classroom had experienced hurt, and I knew it would be a touchstone for class conversation. Putting that moment from my history on paper was challenging, and I shed tears while writing it, but I was proud of the end result. I began:
When I reflect on my past, vivid, colorful memories flood my mind. My parents built a home full of warmth and love. Both of them were hard workers and they instilled in me a drive to achieve greatness. My father bruised his hands from hours of hard labor, and he was willing to sacrifice his comfort for the sake of our family.
And then to end, I wrote:
That day I realized the supreme importance of kind words and acceptance. It was the first time I had experienced judgment because of money. Maya Angelou, one of my favorite poets, said people will forget things about you, but they will never forget how you made them feel. Sure, I eventually healed, but I have never forgotten.
Having never read any of my work to a class, I was terrified of their reactions. But after sharing my story with them, I noticed an immediate change in the tone of the classroom. They were shocked that I had written something for them, and even questioned the authenticity of my memoir. “It’s all real,” I assured them. “Now, tell me what you noticed about the structure of my writing.” The discussion wasn’t perfect, but they could point out the introduction and identify the paragraphs that focused on the central idea of the memoir. And when I asked them to write their own memoir, they didn’t hesitate.
Students began writing about heartache, loss, separation, death, and financial struggles that had left indelible marks on their memory. One student, Faith, whose defiance had led to several suspensions the year before, wrote beautifully about the death of her grandmother. She explained, “I didn’t show my hurt right then because I tried to act strong. When I got home, I bursted into tears. I felt like I was now alone, and she was the person I was closest to. I could talk to her about anything. I could trust her, but that day, all of that was gone for good. I said “I love you” for the very last time.” In her reflection about this piece, she stated that her grandmother’s death had been tragic, but writing about it helped get some of the anger and frustration out of her system.
Another student, Annie, described the death of her father in ways that made me cringe as I read her words. She wrote, “My dad passed away almost two years ago. It was very hard. I wanted to be with him in the ground. I thought there was no purpose in my life.” At times while writing, she would start crying, declaring that the memoir was too difficult to write. She persisted, though, and explained in her reflection that writing the memoir had helped her deal with her father’s death.
During writing conferences, I asked them why they were suddenly willing to share such painful memories, ones they had avoided sharing before. They cited my memoir and bravery to share as valid reasons for writing about these experiences. Writing is a painful, searing experience that we resist undertaking because we do not want to resurrect the hurt. Our students feel the same way. But there is something cathartic about writing. When we spill our emotions onto blank pages, we can see, through words, the problems that plague us. It is a unique way of healing.
I wanted my students to write, but I failed miserably until I began letting them write about the things that were meaningful to them. As a teacher, it is easy to get lost in curriculum, testing, department meetings, and traditional methods of writing instruction. But if we can get lost in the journey of writing, the rewards are far greater for our students and for us. I believe that the best teachers learn alongside their students. We become better writers by writing for and with our students, and ultimately, they grow in their craft as writers, too.