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There exists a vast catalog of books that discuss the sad truth that far too many students come into our classes each year holding attitudes towards reading that range from agnostic to downright antagonistic. From The Book Whisperer to Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys to Book Love to the upcoming book I Hate Reading, there might be more titles on that subject in literacy education than any other. And there is a good reason for that. Even with the collective knowledge in these books, student reluctance or refusal to read remains a perennial problem, one that continues to get worse, with the rates of students reading outside of school now sitting at the lowest level since we began collecting data on it nearly 40 years ago.

Given the massive number of ways that reading helps students to live happier, longer, and generally better lives, I would welcome even more books on getting students to love reading and believe that doing so should be a national priority. At the same time, I have often wondered why books about students being agnostic or antagonistic towards writing don’t share the same prevalence. I have found indifferent or oppositional attitudes towards writing to be as common (or maybe even more) of an issue, and the ability to write has dramatic impacts on our students’ futures as well. 

In recent years I have been excited to see a handful of wonderful books on the subject of improving student relationships with writing pop up, including Creating Confident Writers, Why They Can’t Write, and one of my books of this summer, The Confidence to Write. Even still, it is a topic that feels in need of more and more prominent development, especially now, as I have found more students than ever identifying as definitively not writers during the last two pandemic-impacted years. 

That is why this week I wanted to share a guide on how to help students to build stronger, more positive writing identities. This guide is a bit longer than my normal posts because the topic is a complex, thorny, and critically important one. But my hope is that through doing a review of the books above and a review of my own practices and writing concerning the subject (including a treasure trove of the practical resources I use), it will be worth the time. To break it up a bit, I’ve split it into two sections: one on where anti-writing identities come from and another on what we as teachers can do to disrupt them and help students to see that they are already writers—ones with unique voices and important things to contribute. I hope you enjoy!

The Problems With Writing

Writing Is Really Hard

In one of my first posts ever, I discussed why so many students dislike writing, arguing that “nearly all of us, word-lovers and veteran wordsmiths included, are often wary of writing because it is really hard work. In MRIs we can now see that when writers begin composing in earnest, nearly every part of the brain, ranging from the ancient lizard brain of the amygdala to the modern super processor in the frontal lobe, lights up like Tokyo at night.”

This idea that writing is, in the words of writing expert John Warner, “one of the most brain-taxing things imaginable” (pg. 12) can be seen in research. But the best way to understand it is to simply think about how we feel after a long writing session, the tremendous lengths we will sometimes go to avoid writing, or how often we come home from a long day, put up our feet on the couch, and then write an essay. Writing is undoubtedly hard cognitive work, and that is a problem because students, like us, tend to avoid hard work unless there is a really good reason for it. This brings me to the next problem…

Students often view School Writing as Boring and Lacking Value

This point has been discussed many places, so I won’t dive deeply into it, but it is safe to say that many students find the common types of writing that are done in schools to be boring (I don’t care about the symbols in Romeo and Juliet) and to have little value for them (and besides I won’t need to know how to write an essay on symbols in my job as an electrician/nurse/investment banker/etc.). The Expectancy-Value Theory of Motivation states that motivation boils down to something’s value times the likelihood we will succeed at it, meaning that if the value of something is zero or close to zero, no matter how well we set it up, students likely won’t seriously engage with it. 

Students Don’t Understand the Writing Process

In her famous essay “Shitty First Drafts” from Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott points out that a great deal of her students don’t really understand what the writing process looks like:

“People tend to look at successful writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter. But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated…For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous.”

Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird

Ta-Nehisi Coates (below) says a similar thing in this talk to high schoolers when he says:

“The challenge for young writers is that it can be discouraging to read a finished product. You say I will never do that. But you are laboring under the misapprehension that the person that did that just did that. That there is something natural about it as opposed to the craft of working it over and over and over again…I rewrote Between the World and me four times.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates

These writers (and scores of others I’ve read or heard) talk about their early (in the words of Coates in the video) “suckage” drafts because so many novice writers don’t understand that first drafts pretty much always feel clunky or even downright dispiriting. Instead novices will often look at a messy first draft and come to misguided but the seemingly reasonable conclusion that the mess means that they aren’t a good writer, while in reality it simply means that it is a first draft.

In The Confidence to Write Liz Prather takes this idea one step further by wondering if teachers’ enthusiastic insistence that students should love writing could also contribute to student’s not seeing themselves as writers because they aren’t always euphorically in love with writing. Prather admits that “l often don’t love writing or love to write, but I value and respect the act” (pg. 26)—a sentiment I and a number of other writers share a fair amount of the time.

Writing Is Scary

I have written three books, 126 blog posts, over 50 published articles, hundreds of essays, and hundreds more letters of recommendations. I say this not to boast but because despite this, I am utterly terrified every single time I hit “Publish” on my newsletter, send a manuscript of any size, or submit an essay for a class or a letter of recommendation. So terrified that I re-read it three or four times and ask my wife to “just take a quick look” two or three times more.

Why do I do this? Because writing is legitimately scary for the following reasons:

  • The words and ideas in a piece of writing are public and permanent. They are us, set in amber for others to judge, monuments to our imperfection and gaps in a certain moment. 
  • One can never be sure how a piece of writing will be received. As far as I know, no writer has figured out the magic formula for how to always predict with accuracy how an audience will respond to the words on the page or how to make every single sentence a winner.
  • Writing is easy to criticize. The permanent, tangible nature of writing combined with the differing tastes of an audience means that pretty much all writing is easily and often criticized. Further, once set down, words can be instantly compared to other words, with the comparison not always favorable to us.
  • Writing is an extended exercise in failure. Outside of rare moments, most words ultimately won’t work, most attempts at something ultimately flop, and most novices have to stumble and fall an untold number of times to uncover and polish their voices. It is easy enough to say that failure is good and necessary, but that doesn’t often make it less painful in the moment.
  • Speaking of pain, this was already mentioned, but it is worth a reminder that the difficulty of writing makes it painful at times, and many students will fear that pain and the general difficulty of writing. 

The Solutions for Building Better Writing Identities

The problems listed above are incredibly tricky to solve for, and they are also only a part of the equation. To help students build better writing identities, we not only have to solve the fact that writing is hard, not always valued, opaque, and scary; we must also disrupt entrenched negative identities and plant and cultivate the seeds of new, more positive identities. This is a big task, but it is possible. Here are some of the key things to think about when doing it:

Caging the Tiger

In The Confidence to Write, Liz Prather reminds us that “primitive humans evolved to react to a beastie jumping from the tall grasses. Even though a five-page term paper is no saber-toothed tiger, we respond as if it were.” (96) I love this quote because while it appears at first glance to be hyperbole, it isn’t. For the reasons listed above, writing has the ability to evoke great fear, and whether one fears a tiger or writing a paper about tigers, the same systems in the brain are at play.

And, as Zaretta Hammond describes in Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, when those fear systems are activated, “all other cognitive functions such as learning, problem solving, or creative thinking stop [in favor of] our ‘fight, flight, freeze, or appease’ responses” (pg. 40). It is safe to say that no positive growth in one’s writing identity can happen while in this state, meaning the first step in improving writing identities is to calm those fears. In the same way that we can suddenly appreciate the terrifying beauty of a tiger once a zoo separates us from that tiger with a cage, we need to put up a safe divider between students and their writing fears, so they can begin to appreciate its own (admittedly terrifying) beauty. Some ways to do that include the following:

  • Split Feedback and Assessment: I’m often asked what the most important thing a teacher can do right away to make feedback more effective. My answer: separate feedback and assessment. The reason for this is that feedback and assessment do two different and conflicting things. Assessment is a static rating of students skills right now while feedback seeks to help a student move forward and improve. There are many reasons why these two don’t mix well, but one of the big ones is that when the discussion of growth (feedback) isn’t connected to a judgment (assessment), it is suddenly far less scary.
  • Allow for Unlimited Revision: I used to balk at the notion of allowing student revisions, let alone unlimited revision, because reading, responding to, and assessing my students’ papers once was already pushing me into burnout (for those struggling with this, I wrote a whole book on it and have a new course on it coming soon). But now I can usually re-assess a paper in about a minute thanks to two tools: First, for students to get credit for the revision they must self-assess their work and write a short explanation of the changes they made for me. Second, thanks to Google I now have their revision history, which when cross-checked with their self-assessments, makes responding to or assessing a revision a relative breeze.
  • Talk and Then Talk Some More About Their Feelings and Fears: James Baldwin once wrote that “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.” I introduce that quote to my students every year when we talk about the various reasons to read, and I revisit it when I discuss the writing process. The reason I come back to this quote when I talk about writing is that Baldwin in his genius way hits upon something large and important here: The private battles that make us feel alone are often incredibly common. When it comes to writing, many students feel that procrastination, fear of writing, writer’s block, perfectionism are unique to them, but in reality, battling those issues is something that binds them to nearly every writer who has ever lived. Making space to discuss and unpack these things can help students to see that these things don’t disqualify them from writerhood, instead they are a part of what makes them a writer. 
  • Be a Metronome: Creating Confident Writers talks a great deal about the importance of predictability when it comes to writing instruction. A big part of the reason for this is that having predictable rhythms and routines around all things writing can help to keep stress low and thus keep the amygdala (the brain’s fear center) calm.

Using Knowledge to Empower

One of the many things that makes me sad when I hear students say that they aren’t writers is that it is false. Simply by being them, they are equipped with everything that they need to be considered a writer: a unique voice, novel perspective, and new ideas. And yet despite this, so many students don’t see themselves as writers because they don’t really understand how writing works. These same students, when empowered with knowledge about writing, can quickly discover that they do in fact have a voice and point of view. Some of the knowledge I strive to build with students concerning writing includes the following:

  • Knowledge About The Writing Process. My classes do a lot of work unpacking the writing process, but I have found nothing to work better than curated pieces of the Anne Lamott essay and Ta-Nehisi Coates talk above when it comes to helping students understand what writing is really like.
  • Knowledge About Their Writing Process and Identities. A central secret to what makes Liz Prather so successful when it comes to helping her students identify as writers is that she has her students metacognitively investigate nearly everything about their writing practice and history. Her students unpack their writing identities, write philosophies of writing, use sentence stems to talk about writing, compare their writing style to mentor texts, catalog emotions connected to writing, carefully plan writing rituals, and claim and celebrate their writing skills and mentors (among other things).  
  • Knowledge About Why Writing Matters. A theme in my work is the importance of being open with one’s pedagogy and the reasons why we do what we do in class. When students understand the value and the bigger picture (or better yet figure out the value and bigger picture themselves), they are more likely to engage and be able to transfer the information from class to other tasks.
  • Knowledge About the Nuts and Bolts (and Heavy Machinery Too). In the same way that students often feel disempowered when they write because they don’t understand what they are doing, when students are taught directly how language works, they can often feel deeply empowered. Here are some of my favorite lessons for doing this, and I have also been loving and using Rebekah O’Dell’s Mini Moves for Writers Youtube series too.

Create Space for Writing

In Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Middle and High School ELA, Matt Kay recalls taking over a creative writing class midyear and asking the students what they’d done during the first five months of the year, to which they held up their workbooks. Kay then asked what else and they said that was it. He then continues:

[I] was staggered. “It’s February!” No stories. No poems. No plays. No songs. No memoir vignettes. Nothing but preparation. [Imagine] an athlete working tirelessly on free throws yet never playing games—not even playing pickup at the park with friends. What’s the point? After a while, she wouldn’t feel like a basketball player. She’d feel like a free throw shooter. The kids in this classroom didn’t feel like writers with indentation issues. They felt like apprentice indenters taking an indenting class because the “real world” really cared about indentation.

-Matthew Kay

Kay’s point here is an important one. We often get so caught up in teaching skills that we can go long periods without actually writing. Don’t get me wrong, the skills matter, but so does simply writing. Some ways that a teacher can ensure students are doing enough writing are by adding the following:

  • Regular Journaling. There is little doubt that my own writing practice can be traced to my 9th grade ELA teacher, who had us write in our journals every day. I have had different relationships with journaling in class over my career, but this year, given how much writing many students missed the last two years, I plan to bring journals back. 
  • Writing to Learn. Whether the students are learning about parallel structure or analyzing Esperanza in The House on Mango Street, one of the best ways to learn is to write about something. For example, students can learn about parallel structure by pretending that they are a coach giving a parallel structure-heavy speech before the big game or better understand Esperanza through writing a letter of advice to her.
  • Starting with Their Story. Every year I lead with narrative because it is a perfect Trojan Horse for grammatical/rhetorical/craft lessons. When students get to tell their stories, they usually want to learn those key skills so that they can tell their story better.
  • Creating Multiple Onramps. Creating Confident Writers makes a great point about how writing for digital media can encourage kids who resist other forms of common school writing (pg. 52). For example, creating digital essays (look at this treasure trove of resources from Trevor Aleo), video shorts, or even cookbooks (which I did on a whim in the spring and found to be weirdly effective for deep character analysis) could all be ways to get students doing more writing that might not feel like writing to them.

Build a Narrative of Progress

Tom Newkirk writes in Embarrassment (2017) that “self-esteem cannot be built upon the wind or empty assurances—it requires objective and publicly acknowledged demonstrations of competence; being good at something” (pg. 45). This is a point that teachers often know in their own lives but can forget when working with students. We know that if we don’t view ourselves as good at dancing, that identity will probably stubbornly cling on until we see some real strengths (maybe learning a dance routine before other classmates or having someone turn and ask us how we did that) and have some real wins (maybe others ohhhing and awwwing or a teacher remarking about our skill in an authentic way).

As teachers, we need to, in the words of Cornelius Minor in We Got This., find “the poetry in [each] student]” (pg. 13) early, often, and with as much fidelity as we spend figuring out the areas where the student needs to improve. 

Listen

I believe that the moment that tips many students over to identifying as writers is the moment that their words are truly received by another. In an Atlantic article about teacher Pirette McKamey, one of her students, Pablo Rodriguez, who had previously disliked writing, noted that she would put comments on his paper that said things like “This is so interesting. I never thought of it this way or I’m so intrigued by the point you are making here. Could you tell me more?” Rodriguez then goes on to explain, “She saw my strengths and it made me feel motivated. I wanted to write essays that would make Ms. McKamey love it more than anything she’s ever read, and I started spending hours at the library rewriting my papers.”

John Warner captures the power of what McKamey did with Rodriguez well in Why They Can’t Write when he says, “Writing is fundamentally about communication, and when students are communicating something, the least we can do is listen” (103). And while the notion of listening, and not just looking to fix and fine-tune, doesn’t seem too revolutionary, in many schools it is, and it can indeed have a revolutionary effect on many of our students.


In Flash Feedback, I say, “The story we tell about ourselves regarding our strengths, our weaknesses, the content of our character, and who we are or aren’t lies at the geographic center of how we behave.” (pg. 113). When students view themselves as nonwriters, they tend to behave the way they think nonwriters are supposed to behave: putting off writing, giving minimal effort, not thinking about voice or style or those other writerly things. And the results of this, even when the curriculum is otherwise strong, are generally what one would expect. 

But when students start viewing themselves as writers, their behaviors followed by their outcomes generally follow suit as well. Suddenly they begin to think of their style, extra hours of drafting begin showing up in their revision histories, discussions of page minimums become discussions of page maximums, and they start seeking the right topic instead of the first topic. At this point, the table is set for feast of learning, but that is a post for next week!

Yours in Teaching,

Matt

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