You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.
--Madeleine L'Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time
This is my 34th year as a writer, and most days I do not yell at myself for having chosen this job. But some days, I yell. Writing is just plain difficult. Certain aspects of it get easier, but I'm amazed at how many do not. Writing takes immense patience...and time. And understanding of the process. If you are a writer-teacher, you know all this.
However, most teachers have barely enough time to be teachers, and none at all to be writers themselves. For you, I offer reminders of what helps writers...and what does not.
- The best help is one-on-one teacher and writer time. Keep work sessions brief. Focus on only one or two aspects of the current writing, not all the problems at once.
- Remind everyone about the writing process, how slow it is, and how it differs from one writer to the next. ALSO...writing is not as important as re-writing...and re-writing some more.
- Read the NCTE publication WRITING PROCESS REVISITED: Sharing Our Stories. An amazing book! It assures you that you're not going nutsy just because you teach writing. The author suggests ways to do the job and remain sane.
- Make regular writing a habit and work will improve. Writers thrive on routines. They like to write at the same time of day, in the same place.
- Asked to write fiction, to "make up a story," many students freeze. These folks do better at writing non-fiction.
- Writers need to be enthusiastic about their topics, so offer many topics to choose from, whenever possible.
- Lists of Stupendous Adjectives, Vigorous Verbs, Descriptive Nouns posted around the room help today's non-readers with vocabulary choices. (e.g., The noun phrase old house offers no picture for readers, whereas weathered gray cottage is more visual.)
- Short assignments usually suffice. You don't need to corrrect five pages of the same errors, over and over. Young writers prefer short papers, which are more successful for everyone.
- Writing Research Papers:
- Demonstrate how to take notes on 3x5 cards from reference sources.
- Once all research is on cards, put the source books away.
- Organize the cards into piles by topic. Each pile is one unit of the paper.
- Arrange the piles in logical order, and from that order, construct the outline. (This process works for all kids, especially ones with learning difficulties.)
- Read prose and poetry to your students every day.
- Ask students to read aloud. (New research proves the importance of this activity.)
- Listen to children's literature on Recorded Books. (You might try Witch-Cat, or Aunt Morbelia and The Screaming Skulls, or Beware The Ravens, Aunt Morbelia-- my books on Recorded Books.)
- Perform short plays as skits for the class.
- Write original plays and perform for the class.
- Turn dialogue from their favorite books into skits to act out.
- Add words to your Word Lists (see # 7 above) every day. Students bring words in for extra credit.
Enjoy as many language experiences as you can whomp up. Show each student the truth of this saying: Your language will shape your life.
How About a Writer In Residence at Your School?
Where would we find such a critter?
Most children's writers, though not all, enjoy working with students. You can ask local librarians and other teachers for recommendations, or work through websites such as the Children's Book Guild of Washington, D.C. Also, consult The Children's Literature Newsletter at www.childrenslit.com. Many writers have websites of their own, as I do.
Once you find your author, have a specific talk about who does what and when and how. Agreement in advance makes everybody feel better.
What Would A Writer DO for us?
Unlike most teachers, writers write every day. They are crazy about writing. Hardly anyone else feels this way, which is why the writing of most people is anywhere from okay to putrid. Truth be told, our nation's teachers have rarely had good courses in writing, yet we expect them to teach it. How unfair...for everyone.
So...the first thing your writer could do is to help teachers polish their own skills. If the teachers are not excited about writing, no one else will be.
Next...your writer should work on mutually-agreed projects::
- Illuminate the writing process so that everyone realizes first drafts are always lousy...for all writers!
- Teach organization, fact-gathering, and factual writing.
- Teach creative, imaginative stuff for those so inclined.
- Explain English grammar...or sentence structure...or paragraphing.
Your writer should be able to meet the particular needs of your class, and help you turn writing into the stimulating process it is meant to be.
REMEMBER: WRITING IS A CRAFT, NOT A GIFT BELONGING TO A PRECIOUS FEW. NEARLY EVERYONE CAN LEARN THIS CRAFT.
What does a writer in residence cost? and How would we pay for it?
The fee you pay a writer varies widely, but remember that writers are hired as specialists. The school itself was designed by a specialist, an architect with a hefty fee. Surely, your writer will cost less than the architect. Often the PTA will hold a book sale managed by parents and teachers, so that the school (not a publisher) reaps the profits, which are enough to support a writer in the schools...every year!
Teachers and principals write grants that supply money for writers and other artists. For instance, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has grant money to support a science writer in your school. Banks or major businesses will often donate money to a high-profile project like Writer-In-Residence programs.
Just think of the money that the Band Boosters produce. Inspire an Arts Boosters Club, and they will do the same for you.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Teachers who have worked with a writer in residence have lots to say.
"You took away my guilt," one Virginia teacher told me.
"The kids and I all enjoy writing now, because I'm more relaxed."
Another one said: "Now I'm a writer myself, and it has made all the difference in how I teach."
Booklist for Teachers of Writing
- On Writing Well, Wm. Zinsser
- The Elements of Style, Strunk and White
- Write Right!: A Desktop Digest of Punctuation, Grammar, and Style , J. Venolia
- Line by Line : How to Edit Your Own Writing C.K. Cook (MLA publication)
- Writing Process Revisited: Sharing Our Stories , Ed. by D. Barnes, K. Morgan, and K. Weinhold, for NCTE
Additional Food for Thought:
- Bird by Bird: , A. Lamott
- A Writer's Time, K. Atchity
- Writers on Writing , Ed. J. Winokur (hilarious quotes)
- In the Middle: Writing, Reading & Learning With Adolescents , Upper Montclair NJ: Boynton/Cook, 1987
- After THE END: Teaching and Learning Creative Revision . Portsmouth, NH: Heineman, 1993
- Teaching with Writing , T. Fulwiler, Upper Montclair, NJ: Boynton/Cook, 1987
- Dictionary of Contemporary Usage , Wm. and M. Morris
- Where Do You Get Your Ideas? S. Asher (ideas from kids' favorite authors)
This is the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory in Portland, OR. They hold seminars for writing teachers.