post by Lisa Stone, 2019-2020 The Educator Collaborative Associate
Confessions of a Struggling Writer
Checked social media.
Became furious with some political posts.
Reminded myself I need to stop checking social media so often.
Texted my sister.
Emptied the dishwasher.
Googled Is a scratchy throat a symptom of Covid-19?
Ate quesadillas and chocolate for breakfast.
Disrupted my husband who is trying to do his work.
Started writing a different blog post but it didn’t feel right.
Lamented that I cannot write…that I have nothing worthy to write about.
These are all the things I did instead of starting this post. Here I am, an adult, an educator, a literacy coach who supports the teaching of writing, feeling blocked, paralyzed, almost fearful of writing. I became that kid in your class. You know, the one who procrastinates, the one who hates writing, the one who has nothing to write about, the one who has nothing written at the end of writing workshop or whose paper has a bunch of eraser marks or scribbled out text, the one who we lose sleep over wondering what we can do to support. That kid.
And while frustrating, it did get me thinking. How can I parlay my writer’s block into helpful tips and strategies to support all writers?
Many years ago, we had a literacy consultant come to our school to support our work in writing workshop. A common question we had was how to get that kid to write. Her response was “Just have them start to write”. Our doubts about this advice vanished during a conference she modeled. Sitting shoulder to shoulder with that kid she began writing – I hate writing…I don’t know what to write about…writing is hard…The hard thing about writing is…The consultant modeled writing a stream of consciousness and then, to our surprise, the student started to write. At first he copied her words, but then branched out and wrote some sort of toilet story. Regardless of your feelings about toilet stories, the key words here are he wrote. I utilized a similar strategy today. I was having difficulty writing, but I persevered. Following my procrastination, I continued to write even though I wasn’t satisfied with the content. In doing so, however, I was inspired to write this completely different post.
Use Mentor Texts
Mentor texts are ubiquitous in writing workshop and are usually quite inspiring to students. But are they helpful to all? In the ideation stage of writing this blog post, I looked for inspiration from the previous posts authored by the talented and experienced members at The Educator Collaborative. Instead, I became intimidated. I can’t write like this, I fretted. It made me wonder if, when we hand a student a mentor text, we are inadvertently causing stress rather than providing support. From this experience, I have committed to becoming more cautious about the mentor texts I suggest to writers. While we want to keep expectations high, we must avoid overwhelming the writer. Finding an appropriate text can be a challenge, though. One remedy could be crafting various versions of our own writing, essentially creating a mini-continuum or progression, in order to offer a model for all writers.
Expand the Definition of Writing
Part of choosing the appropriate mentor text is exposing writers to a variety of exemplars of what writing could look like. In her book, Writing, Redefined: Broadening Our Ideas of What It Means to Compose, Shawna Coppola encourages us to consider a variety of forms outside the traditional, dominant definition of what constitutes writing. While some writers (like me!) may feel more comfortable with the traditional definition, introducing students to the use of graphics, video, and voice recording to communicate their ideas may be the motivator for that kid to begin to write. Once the best fit is discovered, that kid will undoubtedly flourish!
Consider the Stakes
As writing teachers, we often ask students to consider the audience for whom they are writing. Just recently, however, I recognized that perhaps considering the audience is part of the block! I am currently writing a letter of recommendation (well, full disclosure and unsurprisingly, I haven’t started!) for an educator for whom I have so much respect and admiration. Because I want this letter to be a perfect endorsement for her, I am having difficulty starting. Striving for perfection sets pretty high stakes! I wonder how often our students feel stuck in their writing because they are striving for perfection. One antidote for this blockade could be to have the writer choose the audience. While this is not always possible (as is the case of the letter I must write), having a choice of audience may minimize anxiety and perhaps even lead to more authentic writing.
Let Them Talk
Regardless of what I am writing–a blog, a letter of recommendation, even an important email–I appreciate bouncing ideas off of someone whose writing I admire and who I trust will be honest. This dialogue is often the springboard I need to initiate writing. Once drafted, I will return for some specific feedback before publishing. Partnerships within writing workshop, therefore, are critical throughout the writing process. Teaching students how to talk to one another, how to give specific feedback, and perhaps most challenging, encouraging students to be caring writing partners must all be instructional goals for partnerships to be successful. Notably, I did have a critical friend review this post, even though I did not take all her suggestions for revision. But, that’s a writer’s prerogative though, right?
The above suggestions certainly do not comprise a comprehensive list of strategies to overcome writer’s block, nor are they foolproof. To be fully transparent, I did check social media during the composition of this piece, but I also did get it done! Aha! Another tip to keep in mind when working with our writers: breaks are needed!
What are some other strategies that you have used to help students initiate writing? Please share them so we can support all our students, including, that kid. Last confession – to support that kid and me.