On my first day working as a literacy staff developer at an elementary school in Brooklyn, the school’s six first-grade teachers and I sat around a table in the school library talking about the variety of ways they might go about setting up writing centers in their classrooms, and what minilessons might be best for launching a writing workshop when one teacher interrupted me, “You know,” she said, leaning forward in her chair and looking around at her colleagues, “What’s the point of writing workshop, anyway? I mean, they’re really not all going to be writers. Do you honestly think that every student is going to grow up and become a famous novelist or poet?” I wish now that I could go back in time to that moment. I’m ashamed to admit today that I didn’t have a ready answer to a question as basic as this one: what’s writing workshop for?
What I figured out fairly quickly on that day and have to continually remind myself time and again in this work is that it’s really easy to get so caught up in the how’s of teaching writing—how to make our minilessons clear and efficient, how to maximize our conferences to support as many students as possible, how to assess a piece of student writing, how to get students to edit, to publish—that we can easily to forget the why’s. Namely, why should we do this work?
In my early years of teaching writing workshop, I had a second grader named John B. John B. was the kind of kid who kept to himself. By that I mean he barely spoke a word. He lived with his dad, his twin brother, and his older brother who was currently in Juvenile Hall. John B. was a second grader who almost never smiled, and he was a second grader who drew guns. Lots of guns. And flying. His pictures had lots of flying. As much as I would insist he try to find a small moment from his life to write about, John B. would draw flying, guns, fire, and sometimes bad guys.
When I’d try to talk to him about his stories, about his life, he maintained a hard and stubborn silence, kept his eyes intently on his paper, waiting me out. And when I’d finally give him one last encouraging compliment and walk away, he wouldn’t respond, he’d simply return to drawing guns, and fire, and bad guys.
It stayed pretty much the same all September and October. Until one day in November, when we started our informational writing unit, I walked over to John B.’s desk, and noticed he was making a new kind of drawing. This one had a figure with its feet firmly on the ground, a figure that actually resembled John B. And he had drawn a long line across the page to another figure, on which he was drawing small zig-zags. I sat down.
“Hi, John,” I started. “What are you teaching about?”
John looked up at me warily. He looked down at his paper. I waited. After a minute or so, he finally whispered, “It’s Spooky.”
At first, I misunderstood, thinking we were back to bad guys and guns. “You’re teaching about something spooky?” I asked.
He shook his head and put his finger on the page. “My dog is Spooky,” he said, keeping his eyes in his lap.
“Oh wow,” I nodded, leaning forward to get a better look at his paper. This was one of the most complete sentences he’d uttered since I’d met him. “Your dog’s name is Spooky?”
“He’s brown. He’s a Lab.” John B. said picking up his pencil and resuming drawing the spikes in Spooky’s fur, still not making eye contact. “He sleeps with me at night.”
I nodded and thought about this for a moment.
“John? Would you be willing to teach the class about Spooky? You must know so much—like about what he eats, and what he does… Do you think you could write a whole book about Spooky and other dogs like him?”
Later that week, John B. stood at the front of the classroom holding a large drawing of a dog. As the class sat in rapt attention, he pointed to the dog and read the words he’d written below his drawing. We began to know John B. in a way we never had before, and his contribution seemed like the beginning of a new confidence and trust in the classroom community.
What I wish I could go back in time and tell that teacher who asked why we do writing workshop, and what I’ve come to realize, in my eleven years of sitting with students as they write—whether it’s a slow trickle or a roaring gush—is that we do this work because we want all children to be able to use writing to communicate their experiences to the world with clarity and beauty. We want to teach students to have control over their craft, to be able to write with power, to provoke. More than that, we hope that by giving our students the tools to write well, we will be giving them the tools to live well—to know what it means to live in a supportive, functioning community; to know what it means to succeed with humility, to fail with grace, and to have the courage to be seen and known by others.