Teacher to Teacher: Writers’ Decisions By Janice Ewing
As teachers, when we encourage our students to use the writing process, we are often referring to the acts of brainstorming, drafting, revising, editing, and publishing. The more teachers engage in writing of their own, the clearer it becomes that these components, while helpful to identify, are not necessarily sequential; they will interact differently for different writers and/or with different pieces of writing. For example, if you’re a writer who tends to make changes as you compose, you would not want a critique partner to remind you that we’re not “in revision” yet. Similarly, you would not appreciate a partner looking over your shoulder to point out needed edits while your ideas are flowing. I think it’s helpful to ask ourselves if we’re doing this with our students, either directly or by suggestion.
I also think that there is a broader frame of reference that it’s helpful for us to reflect upon — the importance of the myriad decisions a writer makes in crafting their work. For students, the scope of their decisions will vary, depending in large part on the belief systems and resources that provide the foundation for writing in their classroom, school, or school district. For example, if they are following a highly structured and prescribed writing curriculum, the emphasis might be more on correctness and adherence to a formula than to making thoughtful choices. In a setting with no restrictions, but minimal guidance, students might have the freedom to make decisions but lack the opportunities to grow and learn from other writers.
My view is that in an authentic reading/writing workshop model, one of the lenses that students read through is that of reading like a writer. In my experience, I have seen this start as early as kindergarten, where students might read different versions of a fairy tale, for example, and discuss which one they preferred, based on features such as the beginning or ending, the way the story made them feel, the illustrations, or other relevant factors. In higher grades, this lens might provide insight into any number of features, such as point of view, genre, format, time span, tone, perhaps viewing multiple texts on the same topic crafted in a variety of ways, depending on decisions that the writer has made. A related authentic step is for students to try out some of these “noticings” in their own writing; this is how we frequently use mentor texts. There is great value in using a shared text to highlight a writing feature, but the goal of course is for students to develop this lens on their own, so that reading like a writer becomes a natural part of their experience of interacting with text.
As reflective teachers, coaches, administrators, or teachers of teachers, here are some questions we might ask ourselves:
*What is our own comfort level with reading as writers and making decisions about our own writing?
*What degree of agency do our students have in making decisions about their writing — topic, genre, format, point of view, etc.?
*Do we have writer-to-writer conversations and conferences with our students, rather than assuming an assigner, time-keeper, and assessor role?
*Have our students, from the earliest grades, had experiences with texts that encourage them to include reading like a writer in their approach to reading?
*Are we supporting our students in the process of expanding their toolbox of approaches that they might use to enhance their writing?
Ultimately, we want students to find their own voices, their own strengths and interests, their unique writing identities. Along the way, how can we create the conditions that will give them the experience and agency to make their own decisions as writers? You’re invited to share your thoughts in the comments section.
Janice Ewing is a 2004 Fellow of the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project, now the West Chester Writing Project, and a current member of the advisory board. Her interests include teacher inquiry, collaboration, and mentoring. She and her colleague Dr. Mary Buckelew, are the authors of Action Research for English Language Arts Teachers: Invitation to Inquiry (Routledge, 2019).