The LC Primary Focus for 2022-23
Understanding the Work of Writing
Adapted from In Pictures and In Words by Katie Wood Ray
To become proficient, writers have to develop some serious stamina, and it’s critical that teachers understand what writing work is like so they understand the kind of stamina writers need. And I do think of it as writing work—in the sense of purposeful effort—not in an onerous way much of the time, sometimes writing is quite joyous, but it is work nonetheless.
Writing work, or indeed any creative endeavor, is just not like other kinds of work in the world. Writing work asks you to go from nothing to something, all on your own, over and over for long stretches of time. What do the following chores have in common: folding clothes, washing dishes, scooping up the backyard, and vacuuming? Well, yes, they all might make you tired and a bit soiled. BUT… the work you needed to do was right there in front of you. You can see the work and you can easily see when it is finished. You feel a sense of accomplishment rather quickly.
An hour of writing work, on the other hand, is nothing like this! When a student sits down to write during writer’s workshop, he has a blank book or page. He might have a vision in mind of what he wants to write. He probably knows the topic and some key ideas, but he really doesn’t have a sense of how it will take shape until he STARTS writing. It is up to the writer to figure out how to work his way through time and accomplish what he’s set out to do.
As teachers, understanding the dramatic difference in these kinds of work is important but not without discussing the curriculum of time in relation to the teaching of writing. Time isn’t just when writing instruction happens in your classroom; time must be part of the curriculum, part of what students are learning about as they develop as writers. It really doesn’t matter how many craft lessons or genre studies you plan for students if you don't first teach them how to sit down in chairs, stay there for a long time, and make some work for themselves that leads to writing. With blank paper in front of them, students have to learn how to make something from nothing, and they must learn to come back the next day and do it again. The curriculum of time is fairly simple: Sit. Stay. Put something on paper.
In her book The Writer’s Life, Julia Cameron says,
Writing is the act of motion. Writing is the commitment to move forward, not to stew in our juices, to become whatever it is we are becoming. Writing is both the boat and the wind in the sails. Even on the days when the winds of inspiration seem slight, there is some forward motion, some progress made. The ability to show up brings with it the ability to grow up. (2001, 96)
For children to grow up as writers under the care of teachers, those teachers must teach them how to show up and move forward, how to be both the boat and the wind for their forward motion as writers.
When children regularly fill time with work they’ve made for themselves, they will come to understand what it means to do the creative work that writing demands. This type of writing is more authentic and honors the writer’s ideas and capabilities. I remember a time when my 2nd grade class was engaged in a genre study of how-to writing. Instead of every writer writing about the same topic, I allowed them to choose a topic that was important to them—one that pulled at their own heart strings and one that they knew a lot about. One student wrote about chopping wood which was a chore he had to do several times a year with his family. Another student wrote about how to make hard candy—something she did every year during the holidays and was her grandmother’s recipe. These students were learning what it meant to be a writer and do creative work. They also learned that their teacher valued their experiences and ideas.
On the other hand, children who spend their school days completing work that is laid out in front of them to do, work they can see—a puzzle for math, a worksheet for colors, a match-the-animals game sheet—are doing house cleaning kinda work all day long. Something is already on the paper for them to do, they do it, and they finish. They’re vacuuming and folding clothes and ironing with this kind of work. And this doesn’t mean that this work doesn’t have value; it just means students aren’t learning anything about the curriculum of time when they’re doing it. Someone else has determined their forward motion by putting work in front of them to do.
INSTRUCTIONAL TIPS FOR HELPING YOUNG WRITERS BUILD STAMINA
- Use blank paper and staple it into a book. Blank books invite children to work for a very long time at filling it up. There are published picture books in your classroom so those young writers can see the kind of thing they are making all around them!
Value the time children spend illustrating as much as you value the time children spend writing, not because you privilege one over the other, but simply because you value children spending time.
Allow children to move between writing some words and working on illustrations. Staying with the work for long stretches of time becomes much more possible for them, and the expectation for them to build stamina becomes much more developmentally appropriate.
Teach children to date-stamp their books when they begin working on them and when they move to a new book.
In writing conferences, make it a habit to ask children how long they’ve been working on the book. Over time, the familiar question will teach them that you expect them to think about the process of their work over time.
Explain to children that it is fine for them to sometimes put a book away for a while and then decide to come back and work more on it later. Writers do some of their best work when they’ve been away from something for a time.
Go public when you see evidence of children exhibiting good stamina in their work. During share, have these children talk about their process and how they’ve managed to stay with their work for so long. Let good stamina be a badge of honor in your classroom.
Save copies of books from year to year that are good examples of work that took a long time to do. Early in the launching of writer’s workshop, look at these books together and have children help name the things they see in the books that must have taken a long time to do.
In writing conferences, help individual children imagine ways they might stay longer with a book. Help them imagine possibilities for how they might fill up the white space with images and words.
Consider a demonstration lesson where you model your own thinking about how to spend a long time on a book you’re making.
Encourage children to talk with people at home about their (the children’s) ongoing books. Set aside time for children to report on their conversations from home. All of this talk helps them to think of themselves “in the midst” of something, even when they’re away from the actual work of it.
When looking up information (in books and on websites) about illustrators to share with children, be on the lookout for any mention of stamina and time. Share what you learn with children.
Making books is serious business!
Check out these books written by IR primary students!
K-3 Literacy Collaborative Coaches
Location: Evans Mills Primary School, Leray Street, Evans Mills, NY, USA
Phone: (315) 629-4331