Our students are writers, but even a few short weeks ago many didn’t see themselves that way. They were worried that they didn’t know how to spell, that their writing wasn’t “right,” that others knew something that they didn’t about this mysterious practice called writing.
Like we do every year, we’ve been working to build a community of learners and writers in our multiage class of first, second and third graders. And like Margaret Simon reminds us all in her #digilit post this week, that requires practice, patience, and persistence. Margaret was talking about the use of digital tools–but I would argue, it is the same with or without the digital tools. But I want to remind us (and myself) that practice doesn’t mean drudgery. Instead it means establishing a practice, regular opportunities to write in meaningful ways. It means low stakes opportunities to explore the possibilities of writing, to play with words, to share your attempts with others who are also trying on and experimenting. And it means knowing that your first attempt is not your only attempt, that writing takes time and multiple iterations that come from layering inspiration, mentor texts, and supportive instruction.
A week ago, we were inspired by the life and poetry of e.e.cummings. (If you have not yet read the picture book biography of cummings by Matthew Burgess, Enormous Smallness–you should. It’s quite a treat!) Burgess’s description of cummings exploring the world with “his eyes on tiptoes” made an impression on our young writers. After studying love is a place by cummings along with a few other poems by various authors as mentors, our students set out to compose a poem about something they love.
They wrote these poems in layers–a little each day over the course of a week–and in a community of other poets (including their teachers) working to express their thinking and visions about something they care about. We read our works-in-progress, noting language we loved, noticing techniques we could borrow, and learning how to “fit” something into a page already full. (A major impediment to revision for young students…we continually work to show our writers how to make changes without erasing or starting over!)
The resulting poems are magical…and incredibly varied. From the one that begins, “Shall I compare winter with a magical place…” (inspired by her own knowledge of Shakespeare and her love of snow and ice) to the one that ends, “Time doesn’t exist on a boat on the ocean when fishing,” my heart swells knowing that the power of our writing community has taken hold.
And sometimes you get the piece that feels momentous, a powerful expression from a student who previously didn’t claim writing as something he even wanted to own. But he is feeling the magic of his words and wants to share them, giving me permission to share them with other writers and learners. Surrounded by a community of writers and learners and inspired by the mentor text, Trouble, Fly by Susan Marie Swanson and the story, The Waterfall by Jonathan London, B knew he had something to say about writing that is worth sharing with others.
B’s effort shows the results of practice, patience, and persistence. But this didn’t come from a single lesson. Instead, it is the result of cumulative effort now in its third year for this student. B expects to write for many reasons and in many ways on a regular basis. That’s what we do in our learning community. On Thursday, the National Day on Writing, students put some of those reasons for writing in print to express #whyiwrite to the larger community of writers on Twitter.
As I think about myself as a writer and as a photographer, I know that practice, patience and persistence also apply to me and my own learning. I wrote last week about writing with light through my photography. This morning as I walked the beach in a light rain, I wanted to capture the quality of light and feeling of expanse I experienced. As I poured over and thought about the photos I took, my mind wandered back to one of my photographic mentors, Ansel Adams. And I found myself inspired by his words…and by his use of black and white to express nature’s powerful beauty. I took my photo and used a filter to transform it from color to black and white, capturing the mood and expansiveness…and the quiet I was looking for.
When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence. Ansel Adams