Currently a department co-chair and co-director with the Pennsylvania Writing & Literature Project, Brian Kelley has taught 6th, 7th, and 8th grade for over twenty years.

To Think as a Writer

To Think as a Writer

I suppose somewhere, a voice might argue that learning should be uncomfortable. That when we stretch ourselves to learn new things it isn't easy or seamless. And, reflecting on my learning, I can understand that perspective.

Yet, when I hear my student, Rishab, (listen to the brief podcast below) tell me that for a long stretch in his life "writing was a chore" I pause. Again and again, through conferring, I hear a similar point from students. In the past, before choice in the classroom, the act of writing had been insufferable...not an interesting challenge, not a satisfying struggle. No one is saying writing should not be hard. Actually, the act itself is an awesome challenge even under the best conditions.

Rishab's word, chore, makes me think of millions of teenagers assigned chores around the country--sometimes to help them earn money but in many cases to learn responsibility and accountability.

Most people are forced to do chores. While unpleasant, yet necessary, adolescents do not elect to do chores.

Writing should never be a chore in that sense in that it should never be forced into our hands by another person. The world gains nothing by making writing a chore. Our students learn nothing by writing being a chore. As a matter of fact, we do a disservice to society when we drive students away from writing by making it a chore.

Why would we indoctrinate people into believing that writing, while unpleasant, is necessary. It does not have to be unpleasant to be effective.

Rishab says when writing is a chore he is not writing about his own thinking. Actually, he isn't thinking at all. He says, "I'm just writing...its usually really meaningless..."

When I was an adolescent, I really didn't like doing my chores at home. As a matter of fact, I remember being called out by my mom (often) because I did not clean properly.

I was just trying to get done.

Rishab tells me that he never used to revise (go through his work to make it better). With choice, he says, writing no longer feels like a chore when "I just wanted to get done with writing."

So, what makes the difference for Rishab? Choice.

As it turns out, Rishab likes analysis and evaluation. At the time of this conference, his portfolio was filling with drafts (in various stages) of evaluations: a video game, a car, a social problem, himself.

Because he had the space to explore his own topics and modes, Rishab wrote for himself. He chased his thinking. He was no longer in a hurry to get things done. And he cared about how it read.

Furthermore, Rishab mentions his father's influence on his writing several times--even going as far as calling his father a writing mentor! Rishab's dad is not a writer in a traditional sense of an author or a journalist, but he has to write for work. And Rishab keeps returning to conversations in the car (to a game, to school) about analysis and evaluation. 

Through these conversations with his father, Rishab learns the language of evaluation. Additionally, he absorbs his father's need to be "concise" and sets that as a goal for himself as a writer.

Would Rishab and his father talk about analysis and evaluation if Rishab did not have choice in his English classroom? For sure. They have that relationship. However, I believe that Rishab's ability to connect analytical skills to himself as a writer was greatly enhanced because he had the freedom to consistently write about what interested him. His conversations with his father complimented the support offered in class--together, Rishab's development as a writer accelerated. If you notice, we did not talk about any one piece of writing and Rishab did not indicate that his father cherry picks errors out of Rishab's essays. What we hear is a student fully embracing the act of developing as a writer.

Rishab's father's influence can't be overlooked here. Our conditions in our classroom can leverage a parent's influence! Imagine if we stressed form over person, writing over the writer. If Rishab neurotically focused on grammatical errors and form, perhaps that might be the extent of a parent's connection with their child's writing. That might be all Rishab connected with because he might only be thinking of the writing...and correcting the writing. Maybe not. But my point is because we position Rishab to see and think as a writer, he makes connections in the rest of his life as a writer. This is huge.

This is how writers operate in the real world...through talk, through listening, through thinking and observation, and through putting their thinking down on paper.

Anything else, and we risk making writing a chore. And when we make writing a chore, we completely ignore the writer because the writer takes a backseat to the form. We send the message that the chore matters more than person.

Chores don't make good writers.

Choice makes good writers.

When Planning, Leave Room...

When Planning, Leave Room...

Displaying Student Work

Displaying Student Work