Ask a teacher: How to create a classroom community of empowered writers

October 20 is the National Day on Writing. During this day, the National Council of Teachers of English encourages “everyone to share their knowledge about writing, organize participating groups in our schools and/or communities, and transform the public’s understanding of writing and the role it plays in society.”

To celebrate this day and our newly released white paper “Writing for all: NWEA stances on writing,” we will be sharing some ideas on best practices in writing instruction here on Teach. Learn. Grow. in the coming months.

The NWEA stances on writing lay out a clear vision for the future of writing instruction through five research-supported stances. The paper addresses what writing is, why it’s important, and how NWEA can better meet the needs of the writers we serve through our products, services, research, and advocacy.

Empowering writers

Our first writing stance sets the stage for the importance of teaching writing: “Writing empowers; writers use their voices.” In our white paper, we explain that writing “is a critical tool for participation in society, presenting the writer with multiple pathways to opportunity, engagement, discovery, expression, influence, agency, and advocacy. Because of writing’s social, political, and civic impacts—and because of the lifelong implications for the writer—writing must occupy a prominent space in students’ academic experiences.”

To learn more about how to empower student writers, I interviewed Bethany Douglass, a 15-year veteran teacher and a National Writing Project fellow. Our interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Before we dig into your experience teaching writing, let’s start at the beginning: why do you write?

I think I use writing to make sense of the world, and I think that happens in everyday experiences. For example, when preparing for my son’s birthday party, I found that, in my head, there was a mess of items that I needed to take care of. So I made a to-do list, and as I was looking at the list, I thought, “I can do this.” In that act of writing, I made sense of all the chaos that was in my mind. It was empowering.

I’m also a huge journaler. When I’m trying to make a decision about something or trying to reflect on next steps, journaling is part of my process.

It sounds like you’ve been using writing to make sense of things for a long time. What other roles has writing played in your life?

Writing is something that has been a part of my life as far as I can remember. Writing has taught me—and this is really important to me—how to fail. Writing has taught me how to receive feedback. Writing has played a role in exploring my voice. It has certainly been a vehicle for my voice when I felt like there were things that I couldn’t say out loud.

I even met my husband online. Our first communication was through writing.

The ability to communicate through writing is a gift, and I am grateful for all the ways I have used it outside of a professional setting.

I really like those observations. They’re both profound and incredibly relatable. Okay, let’s turn to the classroom. What role does writing play in your students’ lives?

Writing helps kids make sense of the world, too. It’s also a way that I get to know my individual students, their unique interests, their talents, and the things they need to work on, whether those are part of the writing process or issues they’re working on personally.

Writing prepares students for life beyond school because writing requires you to think critically and communicate precisely.

Writing prepares students for life beyond school because writing requires you to think critically and communicate precisely. When you are writing, you’re writing for another audience (unless you’re journaling). Students have to think rhetorically about the words they choose and how the audience is going to receive them. It also requires them to think logically and rationally: “How am I going to execute my point and how am I going to support my point?” All of that has to do with communication, the communication between the writer and the reader. I think that regular practice with writing wires the brain to think in a way that is clear, to think in a way that is about considering the audience.

Having to consider the needs of an audience builds empathy for others. I hadn’t really thought about that until hearing you talk just now.

That’s so true. Teaching empathy, or helping to understand others, connects to the idea of a counterclaim. Writing a counterclaim is one of the most challenging tasks for students because they must anticipate what someone else might say, think, or feel about their position. Frequent experience and practice with writing wires your brain to be more empathetic because it certainly makes you think about how you’re going to respond to someone who disagrees with you. And that’s hard.

I recently came across the idea that assigning writing is not the same as teaching writing, and it has really stuck with me. How do you approach writing instruction in your classroom?

I approach writing instruction in a very structured way, and that is because I have historically taught students who have had very little writing instruction or writing experience. I think that when you’re working with a novice writer, you have to create safety nets for them.

Also, I do tons of modeling. Tons. I am never going to ask students to produce a writing product for me if I haven’t shown them how I would do it, unless I’m just trying to get a baseline. This creates that safety net because they can always go back to the model.

I give tons of feedback, too. Kids do not read what you write on their papers, so one-on-one feedback is so much better. Of course, time becomes a huge issue, but I have dedicated entire class periods to conferencing. I’ve had, sometimes, 35 students in a class, and I sit down and conference with each one of them, give them at least five minutes to talk through strengths and weaknesses and next steps with papers. I’ve found ways for students to still be learning independently at their seats while I’m conferencing with other students. That conference time is just invaluable.

Receiving feedback and persevering through rounds of revision can be psychologically tough. How can teachers build a classroom community of writers that is welcoming and resilient?

We have to get rid of the magic curtain.

I recently wrote a model paragraph that was an analysis of Langston Hughes’s “Mother to Son,” and we were dissecting my model when a student good-naturedly asked, “How did you write all this about just two lines of poetry?” My response: “I thought about it a lot, and a lot of practice.”

Students think we are doing some kind of magic when we write, and we’re just not. We have to tell them about our struggles as writers. We have to write in front of students off the cuff. We have to put ourselves in the same position as them. Otherwise we’re asking kids to go out on a limb we’re not willing to go out on.

I love that idea. To build community, we have to show our vulnerability. What about value? How do we help students see the value in writing? That writing is worthy of their time?

Through writing personal narrative. Personal narrative is the way I always start the year. I try to pick a topic that is going to make them think about themselves.

Modeling is the best way to show students what you expect, and it is also the best way—especially live modeling—for students to see you stumble a little bit, too.

The other thing that gets students to find value in writing is giving them choice. Most recently, I encouraged students to choose argumentative topics. I provided students with a list of topics, but I also told them that they could come up with their own. When you give students the opportunity to choose, especially an argumentative piece, they take ownership of it.

What is a memorable teaching moment you had in the classroom?

I don’t necessarily consider myself a strong creative writer, but I do enjoy teaching creative writing. I love creative writing because it provides an avenue for students to express themselves in a way that I think we don’t provide enough opportunity for in the classroom anymore. But students use creative writing to explore where they are emotionally. They use it to explore their relationships with their peers, with their family. Creative writing is a great way to earn your students’ trust. It certainly builds community within a classroom.

I had this amazing creative writing class once that, honestly, I was a little overwhelmed by at first. Those students ended up being one of the most amazing groups of kids that I’ve ever worked with. They wanted to enter a literary magazine contest through Books-A-Million. They stayed on me and stayed on me about it. I was pregnant at the time and was very overwhelmed with how I was balancing and going to continue balancing life. And they said, “No, no, no. We’ll do it. You just guide us through.”

We ended up winning third place. Books-A-Million printed our book, sold it, and hosted a book signing and everything. These kids felt like rock stars. And they did all of it, from the cover art to the writing. This particular group of students would never have connected with one another on campus had it not been for this writing opportunity. These were students who you would not have seen hanging out together in the hallways or in the cafeteria. I would venture to guess that some of them still communicate to this day.

What a great memory. Okay, it’s a new school year and a perfect time to make new writing memories with students. What advice would you give to teachers for this school year?

Model, model, model. There is a perception that at some point in a student’s educational career, they know how to write, and so we can just start to assign writing. I’ve taught students from 6th grade through 12th grade. I’ve taught students taking AP literature and composition, and I’ve taught students who have had minimal experience with writing. The truth is, no matter where a student is, what grade the student is in, or how much experience they’ve had with writing, they have not had writing with you. Modeling is the best way to show students what you expect, and it is also the best way—especially live modeling—for students to see you stumble a little bit, too.

I also try really, really hard not to use the words “good” or “bad.” Writing is a human act, and it is connected to your sense of who you are, especially for extremely vulnerable teenagers as they’re maturing. I have made the mistake of saying, “This is good” or “This is bad,” and when that happens, students take that to heart. They pin that to who they are as an individual, and it’s not about that at all.

I think that’s really great advice. Writing is a skill we develop over time. It takes a lot of practice and a lot of constructive feedback to get better at it.

Writing really is a gift. As teachers of English and across the curriculum, we have the opportunity to give that gift to students every day. If we do it often enough, and if we show them that writing is something everyone can do effectively, then hopefully it will open up a world of opportunities for them.

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