Top Ten Lessons Learned Writing a Book For My Students by Greg Armamentos

dash coverSeveral years ago I switched the writing emphasis in our classroom to choice writing. Rather than spending the entire year on narrative, persuasive, and expository methods, we would primarily write for creative purposes. We would write daily, passionately, and boldly. The idea was to rescue writing from being relegated as merely a school subject, and allowing students to see that each of them had valuable ideas, a unique voice, and an audience to share them with. I didn’t just want to help students write better, but to see themselves as writers.
Of course, that had to start with me, identifying myself not just as a teacher of writing, but as someone that writes.
So I wrote daily with the kids. Sometimes gibberish, sometimes garbled, but writing nonetheless. And a voice emerged, along with characters, and stories, and a daily pattern of exploring creativity in our classroom. I challenged students, and they challenged me, and we grew together as writers, editors, and creators. From their pleading, their prompting, and their encouragement, I took the challenge to write a book, and they shared in the publication process with me.

The story Dash – Life Between the Numbers is a collection of life-lessons shared through the lens of a young middle-grade student. But the backstory of the book, the lessons we learned through the book’s creative process, is told here.

Top Ten Lessons Learned Writing Dash – Life Between the Numbers with my students:

1. Students desperately want model writers.
Before they were willing to wade into the writing pool, they needed to know the water was safe. By modeling daily in front of them, writing was nudged from the high dive’s precipice of fearing, to the lower dive’s edge of daring. It was still scary, but doable.

2. Writing is an act of courage.
Cynthia Ozark declared, “If we had to say what writing is, we would define it essentially as an act of courage.” It is easy to give directions to my students on what to write about, or how to start. But to write live in front of them, revealing my own struggles with idea generation, phrasing, sentence fluency, or word choice, is vulnerable. What a great reminder for us to appreciate the courage required of students every time we ask them to write.

3. Student take audacious risks with YOUR writing first.
Gen. George Patton was nicknamed “Old Blood & Guts.” One of his soldiers reportedly quipped, “Sure. It’s his guts, but our blood.” The reverse plays out with my students. They love to exercise bold chances with MY writing, before they try it with their own.

4. Do the thing you fear.

When students asked me to publish a book, inwardly I shriveled up. I wondered, “Who am I to think someone would read my stories?” And I came face to face with the same question that haunts my students. We humans often doubt our value. We question our voice. How could I ever expect my students to boldly share their beautiful ideas and stories, if I was reluctant to share my own? So I took the plunge, belly-flopping into publishing for the sake of my students.

5. Students have instincts for revision.
While I was developing the book, the class was free to comment on what they liked, but also to raise questions and point out flaws. Out came an army of red pens, as students had numerous ideas for ways to improve the story. By freely revising my writing, they learned to welcome revision in their own, and identify it as an important and necessary part of the overall process.

6. Teachers must use red ink judiciously.
Having my work scrutinized reminded me to be careful when critiquing the writing of others. Do I first identify what works well? Am I specific in my praise? Do I carefully pinpoint what should be worked on, or do I shotgun the whole piece?

7. Students have a unique voice.
Most of the students who come to me don’t believe that they are writers. They don’t believe that they have stories to tell, and a unique voice to share them with. Writing scares them. When we write together, they begin to feel safe, developing storylines, characters and perspectives that otherwise wouldn’t emerge. One of my most reluctant writers was delighted to see the contribution he could make when his quirky dog, Squirt, was woven into the story.

8. The smartest person in the room is the entire class.

As much as we know better, it is still easy to fall into the “Sage on the Stage” mode of teaching, feeling like we have to generate all the ideas, make all the corrections, and determine all the pathways for our instruction. Writing with my class underscores the wealth of knowledge and creativity that they have, providing our entire writing community with a much richer experience than I could ever facilitate on my own.

9. Your example creates vision.
After I published Dash, there was a great sense of accomplishment. Students were proud to say their teacher is an author. I completed this feat at the tender age of 49. Within a couple years, one of my former students went on to publish her own book. Before her 15th birthday. She is just one of many who now identify themselves as writers.

10. They must become greater. We must become less.
On a cursory glance, teaching is thought of as the practice of imparting; a profession that requires the passing on of knowledge and skills to others through instruction. Yet on a deeper level, teaching is more so the art of empowering; equipping others with confidence, character, and a vision of how to make a difference in the world. Writing Dash with my students reminded me that teaching is more than the production of students. It is the creation of dreamers, inventors, artists and leaders.

Greg Armamentos learns and explores with an amazing group of 3rd / 4th grade students in the NW ‘burbs of Chicago. When he is not in the classroom, he can be found reading, writing, running, or snacking on a few Oreos. He is currently working on his second novel, FRAY, which he hopes to release in 2016.