Turning reluctant writers into wordsmiths

Starr Sackstein

Starr Sackstein NBCT currently works at World Journalism Preparatory School in Flushing, NY as a high school English and Journalism teacher, and is the author of Teaching Mythology Exposed: Helping Teachers Create Visionary Classroom Perspective. This year she began a new blog with Education Week Teacher called Work in Progress in addition to her teaching blog StarrSackstein.com. Starr co-moderates #jerdchat and #sunchat as well as contributes to #NYedChat. This year she has made the Bammy Awards finals for Secondary High School Educator. Starr speaks about blogging, journalism education and BYOD, helping people see technology doesn’t have to be feared.

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Staring at a blank page, the whiteness mocking the writer. “Write on me, I dare you.” So many things to say, but what if they aren’t said well? Better not write anything instead, then I can’t look stupid.

"Anyone can be a writer; it’s just a matter of taking what we have inside our heads or hearts and translating it to the page."

Writing isn’t for everyone, or at least that’s what reluctant writers tell themselves. They’ve had bad experiences or simply don’t like to write in the manner they’ve been expected to. The truth is that anyone can be a writer. It’s just a matter of taking what we have inside our heads or hearts and translating it to the page (then exercising patience and perseverance while revising and then courage to share what we’ve laid down).

So how can we inspire those reluctant writers in the classroom, you may ask?

Here’s one way to start:

  • Ask them what they like and give them the freedom to write about it any way that seems natural to them.
  • Start small and try not to impose your own will on their experience. Let it be organic.
  • Encourage every effort and attempt they make, and find something worth praising.
  • Talk to them about their ideas - let it be a conversation that starts in speech and ends on the page.
  • Provide them sentence starters or prompts and allow them to free write.
  • Remind them that there are no limits to what they are allowed to say or write in this space. Let it flow without worry of correctness. It’s always easier to revise than it is to start.
  • If they insist that they don’t where to start, then tell them to start with the first body paragraph. Skip the introduction all together and go straight to the meat. They can write the introduction later once they know what they’ve said.
  • Be patient with reluctant writers and remind reluctant writers to be patient with themselves
  • Encourage them to read. The more they read (whatever they read) the better their vocabulary will become and the wider their written voice will become. Many more models to choose from.
  • Remind them that there is no one right way to write, so whichever way they choose is right for them.
  • Don’t impose a structure at first, let them get their ideas out
  • Don’t be afraid to share some of your free writes or first drafts with them, so they can see that every writer starts somewhere and is never perfect.

Once ideas have actually been written, and their confidence begins to build, then you can start to coach the student. Ask them to choose the part of the writing they liked best. Ask them why they chose the part they did and really listen to what they say. Share with them what you like best and why. Be specific and focused, really try to connect with something.

Never take out a red pen or any pen while having these conversations. Their work is special and it shouldn’t be marked up by you. Ask them to write the feedback on the page in a way that works for them. From the part that they liked best, talk to them about development and organization. Give them examples to read and show them why they are effective, then let them read more and ask them what they think. Are these effective? Why? Show me what works and what you would change.

Then ask them to revisit their own writing. How can you develop this piece more to tell a complete story? Who are you telling the story to? And introduce the idea of audience. When students know they have an authentic audience, they are more inclined to take pride in their work. Encourage them to write a journal or a blog, where they can keep short ideas that can later be developed. And before they know it, there will be a piece they want to spend time on.

"Their work is special and it shouldn’t be marked up by you. Ask them to write the feedback on the page in a way that works for them."

Building confidence and voice takes time. They may not love to write for assignments right away or ever, but they will at least learn that they can in fact write and may even like it. Remind them that being a writer take practice like most everything in life we want to be good at, so the frustration that comes when the words won’t shouldn’t stop them from pushing through.

Tell them there are times when you stare at the blinking cursor wondering what to put next or writing whole paragraphs only to allow the delete button to devour them up. Words are meant to be consumed, by eyes or by erasers, not all are meant to be seen in every place. There is a context that must be provided to invite or entice readers and like with any craft, discovering which ones get seen and which get hidden is a learned skill.

Never let your students throw out early drafts. No wrinkled pages in the garbage. Those early drafts will be reminders of the work and time and should be valued, no matter how bad they feel they are. No words are bad. No writing evil, just not mature or well placed and that takes time.

After some time lapses, show them their early work so they can see the progress. Remind them how far they have come. Don’t ever allow a child to tell you they can’t before they even try. Believe in them until they believe in themselves and before too long, the words will come and in the right order and their pride will stain the page indelibly in way no ink can.

How do you encourage writing? Let us know in the comments.

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