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From the Classroom: Everyone Needs a North Star

by Brian Kelley

Over 5000 years ago, the Phoenicians discovered that Polaris, or the Polar Star, is positioned so that the entire Northern sky revolves around it. A reliable piece of data, the Phoenicians guarded this secret as long as they could and dominated sea navigation. While most ships and trade routes hugged coastlines, the Phoenicians ventured further into regions no one else dared.

Polaris, or what we know today as the North Star, inspired confidence. And that confidence and knowledge encouraged the Phoenicians to be risk-takers on the sea.

This scenario strikes me a bit like education. 

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 4.41.44 AMAs educators, we rely on the currents and the trade winds. We hug the coast. We take few risks because, we believe, we have too much to lose. Often, students follow our lead and we scratch our heads when they don’t show growth or develop into risk-takers.

Where is our North Star? And what is the North Star for our students? For each, the answer is the same: encouragement.

Without encouragement, no matter how much wind fills their sails, students will not budge very far from the traditional routes. They will continue to hug  the coast, expecting us to show them how to navigate every step of their journey over and over and over again.

Furthermore, students have little need of a North Star (encouragement) if all we emphasize is dropping an anchor.

When we employ an attitude of correction of error, when it comes to writing, we lower an anchor in their journey.

While encouragement can carry the patina of kumbaya campfire songs, a blemish from the everybody-gets-a-trophy generation, a banner held high by a “nation of wimps” the reality and empirical research tells us that encouragement is the foundation by which student thinking grows. Encouragement is so powerful that it produces better results than correction when it comes to student writing. When we use encouragement we send the message that it is ok to fail. When it comes to writing, our students are beginners. They should make mistakes! A consideration must be how to encourage mistakes (and learning from mistake)s in the writing process without a fear of being lost at sea–aka risk-taking.

Risk-taking as a writer becomes more likely when it is modeled by the teacher who presents himself as a writer and a risk-taker and not a judge. We share our mistakes and how we survived them.

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 4.42.13 AMFears linger in students when teachers foster neurotic fears about conventions. We say that children need to learn how to write correctly and with clarity. We say that students need to know how to punctuate and how to be understood. Few would argue against those points; however, we should attend to the possibility that if the only message we send is that error-free writing is good writing; that error-free writing is our main objective; that error-free writing trumps developmental realities…we feed their fears and discourage risk-taking. I firmly believe the research–I see it in action in my classroom–that keeping correction in perspective helps young writers. I continue to work at policing myself from wanting to mark and circle errors every time a piece of writing is in my line of vision. In retrospect, I can remember being haunted by errors as a young writer. They are all I looked at and are all I attempted to understand. Janet Emig teaches us that since writing is a natural process–and students develop as writers naturally and at their own pace especially when learning is happening–hard-boiled correction can stunt growth.

As encouragement is a powerful guide, I offer four considerations for the classroom:

Writers Notebooks

In Teaching with Writing , Toby Fulwiler writes that the major task of teachers is not teaching items such as semi-colons or predicate nominatives but changing students’ attitudes about writing (122). Regular writing in a writer’s notebook or journal implicitly encourages young writers to write to think–free from the fear of evaluation.

We do not have to evaluate every graphite stitch pressed into the paper.

By encouraging students to keep a journal and by our modeling and sharing our journals, teachers encourage students to re-envision our time together.

If we believe that we have a responsibility to engage with our students’ notebooks there are several strategies to consider:

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 4.42.29 AMDon’t grade it or score it, but provide feedback–spoken or written. Students already come to us wincing and expecting their writing will measured. But the notebook should be their space and we can fight the urge to squeeze students out of their space. Therefore, our feedback might be specific questions, observations of what hooked us as readers, compliments on their use of listing, mapping, sketching; acknowledging that we too cross things out when we write; perhaps we tell students that we love seeing their messiness because we love seeing their thinking develop; even better, tell them that you are looking forward to seeing what becomes of a notation, a loose strand of a thought. It is through notebooks that we can tailor our influence on growth by explicitly punting our evaluator’s crown and simply engaging with students as a fellow writers…not as editors.

As an aside, I know students who (desiring privacy) have appreciated keeping journals in binders in order to easily lift a page to share. Additionally, the pervasive use of Google Docs makes sharing of individual entries easy. Also, I have had students take photos of a page or two if they use a bound journal. They email or share the photos with me. Camera quality on devices has improved so dramatically in recent years that in many cases a simple photo is as good as a scan and sharper than a photocopy. We no longer need to collect entire notebooks.

Furthermore, students can create shared digital folders containing images from their notebooks. In this same folder, students could share pieces from all stages of the writing process in addition to audio files (records of peer conferring), videos, et al. We can give students the power to choose what to share while curating a record and a fluid conversation of the multidirectional paths their thinking follows over time.

Writing Reflection

In the current edition of Educational Leadership, Dylan William’s article The Secret of Effective Feedback tells us “the focus of feedback should be on changing the student rather than changing the work (13).” This too suggests, at the very least, a tempering of a correcting mindset. Providing time for students to reflect on their writing, thinking, and decisions is time well spent. All of school does not need to be a transaction. We can take the opportunity to show students that what they do with their learning, our feedback, and the tools around us is what matters. When learning is personalized we are less likely to hear, “Why are we doing this?”

It is no small thing to explicitly and implicitly send the message to students that their meaning matters–and that we are interested in their thinking. This affordance impacts students far beyond the time spent in our classrooms.

We don’t own our students’ writing lives, but our attitude and our encouragement regarding their reflections may help them have a better chance of not only owning a writing life, but also wanting one.

Talking, Peer to Peer and with Writing Partners

In The Secret Hum of a Daisy, Grace’s mama gives her a notebook to write in should she ever get sad. Charmingly, Grace asks, “You tryin’ to trick me into writing practice?” As the novel evolves, Grace writes secret letters to her grandmother yet never sends them. However, the grandmother finds the letters and writes responses to every single one of them for Grace.

I point out this anecdote because it reminds me of what Mina Shaughnessy writes in Errors & Expectations. We best help students when we do more than correct papers. When we create an interactive environment by encouraging students to talk openly (or to write) about what they don’t understand, students participate as teachers as well as learners. We encourage feedback that is heard–an ongoing recursive dialogue of reading and writing. Again, we send the signal that we trust them to contribute meaning in their classroom (not our classroom) and we suspend our focus on product–the false belief that error-free texts are the only goal of the writing (51).

Even when students are talking about writing they invariably will talk writer to writer if we model it:

Tell me about your decision to…

I’m struck by this word/line. Tell me where it comes from…

I struggle with x, tell me what you did to get to x…

What did you struggle with…how did you get through it…

Response does not need to be evaluation or even a breakdown of technique as represented by my questions above. As valuable as questions, authentic response–what impacted us–moves writers. Writers need to know what they did well as much as they need practice talking about writing. When we can nudge our students towards these beautiful conversations, we will hear our students helping other students grow as writers–and thereby helping themselves as well.

Shaughnessy notes that a classroom filled with only the teacher’s voice is an anachronism. By making the space for student talk we emphasize that writers are always learning. Writers don’t have to remain buried beneath graves of irreconcilable thoughts. Writers don’t have to think of writing as a private battle between prince and dragon. The truth is, we are not alone as writers. Our conversations (through the spoken and written word) is the heartbeat of our making meaning.

Setting Aside the Evaluator’s Crown

In We Are the Ants, Henry tells us that the last time a teacher cared was in first grade when Mrs. Stancil changed him from “book hater to book worm.” Now, as a teenager he is simultaneously encouraged by a friend and a teacher to write:

“You should write a story, Henry,” Diego said…”Henry likes to write, you know.”

Ms. Faraci’s eyes widened with delight.

“I would love it if you wrote a story (140).”

That passage is all in the eyes, isn’t it? Encouragement is the heart of the workshop approach. Encouragement is our North Star because it influences positives changes in students’ (and teachers’) attitudes about writing. If all we do is correct writing, we never work on the attitude of the writer…and, I fear, we never allow our kids the time and space to fall in love with writing.

No one falls in love with that which relentlessly reminds us of our failures and shortcomings.

When we set aside the evaluator’s crown, we allow students to see all of the expressiveness of our faces and to hear the range of emotion in our voices. How powerful it can be to let a student know that their words took your breath, made you brim with tears, made you laugh out loud…made you think.

Tell them. Raise the anchor and take every opportunity to tell your students that their words moved you. You will never be able to predict when that one sailor needs his North Star the most.

Brian Kelley profileBrian Kelley teaches 8th-grade creative writing at Charles F. Patton Middle School in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. You can email him at,  connect with him on Twitter @_briank_ , or follow his podcast The Classroom (on iTunes) or his blog:


11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Katie McCartney #

    You are full of amazing ideas when it comes to teaching, which was something I learned when I got to observe your classroom last year.
    I really like what you said about how students should be allowed to make mistakes. I think it’s easy for some teachers to forget that they are in fact, only learning how to become better writers, which doesn’t mean their writing should be perfectly executed. There is a huge difference between perfection and progress, and I believe that when it comes to teaching writing, we should strive for progress.
    I like how you go about marking your students papers. You showed me last year how you leave a sticky note on the writings they turn in stating one thing that you liked about their paper. This takes away from criticizing students on what they did wrong, and shows them what they did that was great about their writing, which can encourage them to keep writing. It’s obvious that your students respect that about you, and I could tell that they really enjoyed writing in your class, even if they didn’t enjoy it before.
    I agree with you that Writers Notebooks are so important. It allows students to be able to write about what they want to write about, without worrying about “perfection.” When talking with your students they told me that they enjoyed writing in this classroom because they were given choices and they rarely ever worried about their final grade.
    I liked what you also said about students keeping a journal to allow them to write about matters they want to keep private. Writers notebooks can help students begin to keep journals. I know this, because I am one of those students. I got my first journal as a Christmas gift in first grade, and I wrote in it here and there, but I never truly finished it and the entries happened rarely, maybe every couple of weeks/months until I was in fourth grade. In fourth grade, my teacher had us begin writers notebooks. One of our first entries was to make a list of things that we could write about. She explained that every once and a while she would give us a prompt, but there would be some days we would be allowed to free write. My list was endless, and I began writing in my Writers Notebook even when we weren’t asked to. That year, for my tenth birthday I got a brand new journal from my birthday, and I’ve been keeping one consistently ever since. These days, I see so many people my age, and high school students posting their feelings on social media websites like Facebook and Twitter and I do my best to pass along the beauty of writing and keeping journals.
    It’s amazing how life choices and routines can begin with a simple writing lesson, and it would not surprise me if your students were just as inspired by you as I was by my fourth grade teacher when it comes to writing.
    Thanks again for letting me observe and thanks for the amazing article!


    October 14, 2017
  2. Warren Kulp #

    Brian, this was a wonderfully crafted and inspiring piece. I was particularly struck by your paragraph that states “As educators, we rely on the currents and the trade winds. We hug the coast. We take few risks because, we believe, we have too much to lose. Often, students follow our lead and we scratch our heads when they don’t show growth or develop into risk-takers.” This is so true. Sometimes, I think, teachers are not even necessarily aware of their coastal hugging as they move forward and wade the currents of curriculum, mandates, etc., etc., etc.


    August 24, 2017
  3. Tim Crozier #

    Great post. It got me thinking about my own personal writing history, and it’s no accident that I can still recall encouraging words from my best/favorite teachers. Their words were the stars by which I steered. It’s so easy to get sentimental and corny about this kind of stuff, but a little encouragement can really go a long way–a fact that’s often forgotten when we’re tired and there’s a stack of ungraded papers in front of us. The more we can respond as interested readers, though, and not just play spot-the-error with our students’ work, the more we can promote individual growth and potentially enjoy the grading and feedback process.
    I like what you said about students’ writing being their own space and how we shouldn’t try to squeeze them out of their own space. It called to mind the idea of being a respectful guest in someone’s house. The reactions and responses that we express might determine whether a student ever allows us back into his or her world. And writing ought to be treated like the personal medium that it is. It’s probably the most open and most direct method of communication that we will have with our students, so it’s in everyone’s best interest if we nurture the relationship appropriately.


    October 2, 2016
  4. Thank you for your educative article . Your voice will be heard in about 20 Secondary Schools in Nigeria this Summer as I intend to use this article in my training workshop for ESL teachers if you kindly permit me . I have also saved it securely in my iPad and Laptop. It is gem. I like to drink more from where this came from . Please mentor me and let’s share articles more often . I have sent you an email through my email . Please reply as I am eager to build a network of scholars I can learn from and share with . Thanks .

    Adewumi Oluwadiya PhD
    Independent Consultant ESL Writing Research & Pedagogy
    Abuja , Nigeria & Bowie MD USA

    Liked by 1 person

    May 22, 2016
  5. rosecappelli #

    Such an important post, Brian! Encouragement inspires confidence, and confident writers are what we want to create in our classrooms. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    May 19, 2016
  6. Thank you for the inspiration and encouragement. I realize that if I say my work moves me (and it does), that means student writers move me every day (and they do). Am I telling them? I certainly will more.

    Liked by 1 person

    May 19, 2016
  7. Eileen Hutchinson #

    Your message really tugs at the heart-a life lesson for ALL. Carpe Diem!!
    May we reach for the North Star in all our teaching endeavors.

    Liked by 1 person

    May 19, 2016
  8. Reene #

    Homerun, Brian! “The passage IS all in the eyes.”

    Liked by 1 person

    May 19, 2016
  9. mbuckelew #

    Thank you for reminding me of what is important.

    Liked by 1 person

    May 19, 2016

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