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Teaching Writing: A Real Love Story

This post is written by NCTE member Caroline Brewer. 

CarolineHeadshot122011“I can’t.”

“I won’t.”

“I got … nothing!”

“I hate myself.”

“I wanna jump out this window.”

“Kill. Me. Now …  Aaarrrgh!”

Reading over these quotes now makes me laugh, and yet they are the serious protests that recently had become too loud too often from too many of my students.

When the children were challenged to learn—especially when they were challenged to write—the shouts, cries, and refusals spewed like blood from a fresh wound.

I diagnosed a crisis in self-love.

So, just in time for Mother’s Day, I invited my students—who are in grades 3–6—to explore love in poems. I began by sharing interactively a poem I had written about things I love. After each stanza, they had to respond: “Love.”

They were inspired! Pelted me with all kinds of flattery. So I asked them to write a poem for their mothers.

They did so well and enjoyed it so much, I was inspired! I paid them back with heaps of praise, and the next day I offered the chance to write about self-love. Gasps, growls, and howls of protest smacked me like an angry god. Then came the meltdowns. One child flooded her desk with tears, jumped up and stamped her feet, and yelled that she just couldn’t do it. It was “stupid!” she concluded. She sulked for a good 20 minutes.

And then an angel appeared in the presence of a student who technically has the lowest writing skills. In recent weeks, she has welcomed every opportunity to learn. And for the second day in a row, she offered to model a poem about love. Once she opened herself to scrutiny—and succeeded wildly because of her honesty! —the other students quickly followed. The last student to surrender was a student who had for an hour insisted that she loved herself only when she was “fighting,” as in “punching and kicking people.” She, too, has very low skills technically but a vivid imagination.

We used an excellent prompt by poet Bruce Lansky that I tweaked a bit (for this post). It requires students to complete these statements: “I feel love for myself when . . . .” “I feel love for myself because . . . .” ”It feels . . .  to love myself.”

The first writer wrote:

I feel love for myself when I read books at home.
I feel love for myself because I’m reading a book by myself with no help.
It feels wonderful to love myself.

Without my nudging, the fighter eventually erased her paean to pugilism and wrote:

I feel love for myself when I dance.

I feel love for myself when I dance because it makes me feel happy and mad. It also helps me get all my anger out.

It makes me feel confident to love myself.

Last week we wrote wacky rhyming stories, and the love continues to flow—for writing and for self.  The results are improvements in spelling and punctuation, invitations to be edited (as opposed to howls of dread), and a lot less resistance from the get-go.  Our experience is proof that, like love, writing is a power.

That my students are discovering this truth is most of all is what I love.

 Caroline Brewer is a children’s book author, literacy and education consultant, and author of books on education, including Parent Power: How to Raise a Reading Superstar (now on CD), Why I Teach: A Guide to Re-Discovering the Love of Teaching, and The Happy Teacher. Follow her on Twitter @BrewerCaroline and Facebook at www.facebook.com/happyteachertraining.