Making Writing More Cool in School by Polly Holyoke
Because my first children’s book, The Neptune Project, was placed on several state lists, I have been invited to visit hundreds of schools all over the United States. A middle school teacher for many years, I always offered to teach writing workshops. While conducting those workshops, I had a firsthand opportunity to witness the remarkable differences in the writing skills of students, often from the same districts and even from the same neighborhoods.
One might think those differences stemmed from disparities in economic backgrounds, but I quickly began to see that it was the amount of time devoted to writing, and even more importantly, the way writing was taught, that made the real difference. The schools with staff who made writing cool and fun, and found clever ways to recognize good writing, produced confident, capable young writers.
In the schools with the most skilled writers, invariably the kids came to my workshops with their journals proudly in hand, often decorated in colorful ways. The decorations weren’t expensive… usually the journals were covered with the students’ own drawings or pictures they’d cut from magazines. But those journals definitely had been personalized to reflect their young owners’ interests and passions. During the second half of the year, the pages of those journals were already very full. One teacher explained they started every ELA class with a quick writing prompt. Some of those prompts made me smile, and many made me think. If you owned your own robot, what would you ask it to do for you? If your pet could talk, what do you think he or she would say to you?
Even though the teachers in Texas had to prepare their fourth graders for an expository essay on the state writing assessment (really, you well-meaning test creators? What a great way to murder interest in writing for a whole generation of kids!) the most successful teachers found ways to let the kids write creatively because creative writing is fun and leads to fluency. Some teachers helped their students produce a class blog, which only their parents were able to read. Other teachers allowed their students to write fan fiction for their favorite books, or teleplays for their favorite television shows.
I visited a school in Florida where the fourth graders worked on their own novels during the second half of the year, and those novels were published with bound covers and placed in the school library. The students beamed with pride as they showed me copies of their books there on the shelves. Print on demand has become cheap enough that a program like this might be possible at your school with some help from your PTO or a grant. A public library in the Dallas suburbs hosts a hugely popular writing camp every summer, and they also publish the participants’ books. However, here’s a warning. Storage of books from so many writers has become a challenge. Therefore, the librarian I spoke to strongly recommended limiting the time you promise to keep the kids’ books on the shelves.
Schools with capable writers also found ways outside of the classroom to encourage writing. One school I visited offered a story club that met once a week at lunch and produced a story magazine every few months. It was almost as cool to have a story or art published in that magazine as it was to be a football player (and in Texas, that’s saying something)! Sometimes the students raised the money to publish their story magazine, and in other places the PTO helped out, or librarians won grants. A school I visited in a small town near Dallas produced a weekly newspaper titled, The Toilet Times. This remarkable one-page effort was posted on the back of every bathroom stall door in the school. I have a hunch kids and teachers probably spent more time in the bathroom because of that newspaper, but the community was certainly celebrating their young reporters.
Dedicated teachers in strong writing schools found writings contests and made sure their students entered them. Some of those competitions were offered by the school district, and the students who won or placed in those contests were then recognized in the morning announcements. Podcasts are big right now, and I like them because students have to write and think about the questions they are going to ask. I’m amazed by the talented, over-scheduled librarians who somehow manage to produce sophisticated AV school announcements every morning. Some dedicate a minute in their program to features their student reporters write about teachers, staff, or students with an interesting passion or hobby.
Lastly, to encourage young writers, schools can host an author like me who can teach writing, or at the very least, is enthusiastic about the process of writing itself. I love to tell kids that there are all sorts of career opportunities out there in journalism, business, science, and entertainment for people who can write. Many jobs are disappearing, but we will always need good storytellers. We all know that author visits can help to promote literacy, but there is also great value in students meeting the people who actually write books and get paid for their writing.
I do understand that it is a HUGE challenge to make writing fun when class time is limited, and so much is riding on those state writing assessments. Teachers and librarians are already tasked with impossible loads every day in their schools. But truly, you will create more fluent, confident writers when you find ways to make writing a more joyful experience, and when you find ways to recognize the efforts of your student writers.
In my childhood, passionate teachers and librarians encouraged me to write for my school literary magazine and my school newspaper. The confidence and pride I gained from both of those experiences definitely helped me to become the author I am today. I say to those wonderful people, and you brave educators out there in the trenches today, thank you for all you do to get kids writing!
Polly Holyoke is the award-winning author of the middle grade sci/fi Neptune Trilogy (Disney/Hyperion) and the new children’s fantasy series, Skyriders, releasing from Viking Children’s Books on March 7. Polly grew up in Colorado and enjoys skiing, hiking, and camping in the mountains. A former classroom teacher, she believes kids need to read, write, unplug from their gadgets and spend more time… daydreaming!
Excellent post! Thank you. Must try “The Toilet Times.”
Thank you! It’s certainly a cost effective way to have a school newspaper!
This posts speaks to me.
So glad to hear this! I do wish more kids could enjoy writing!
What a great post, Polly. Thank you. It is helpful to teachers, librarians, and creators.
Thank you. I sure proofread this post MANY times because I knew it was going to folks who care about writing (and know writing)!
This strikes a chord with me. My son’s school asked kids to write blog posts about their favorite books. They also wrote their own biographies, told stories about their favorite places, and their 8th grade history projects were 20+ page papers on any topic they chose. My son wrote about the history of the U.S. space program. (He’s now a freshman in aerospace engineering.) Others wrote about street graffiti, dog breeding, comic books, architecture and earthquakes, etc, all accompanied by bibliographies. It was amazing to see what kids will write about when they have an interest in it. That said, his school also taught the five paragraph essay. Personally, I abhor the form. My son suffered extreme angst over having to write them. He struggled with organizing his ideas and paragraph structure the way the essay requires, so they gave him a graphic organizer as a template. To this day, he considers writing to be his least favorite activity, even though he writes well when he’s not writing a five paragraph essay.
Hi Jilanne, this reply makes me so sad and angry. Today’s emphasis in schools on expository writing, particularly with younger students, is murdering joy in writing for a whole generation of kids. I do understand that we need to improve writing and communication skills in students across the country, and ELA teachers have no choice to but to teach to the state assessments. But pounding essay templates into students’ heads is not the answer! So glad to hear your son is following his passion!
These are all great ideas. Glad you’re in the trenches with those teachers promoting creative writing!
Hi Carol, thank you! This post contains a “greatest hits” list of the various approaches and writing activities I witnessed in hundreds of schools. I love my school visits (have 16 in the next four weeks to promote SKYRIDERS) and I really love to see kids getting excited about their creative stories and sharing them with their classmates!
Polly, Many moons ago I wrote this:https://www.amazon.com/Teaching-Story-Fiction-Writing-Grades/dp/1934338354
It’s out of print now, but you can get it online if you need another resource. Carry on!
Thanks for letting me know. I always can use more ideas for inspiring students to write!
Thank you! I created lots of activities for different genres like science fiction, fantasy, historical, and sports stories. I hope it proves useful for you.
I remember in elementary school, until about 5th grade, we used to do Young Authors. We usually had a theme to stick to, but it was still fun. Later, in preparation for spelling tests, my teacher would have us write stories using some of the words. These days, it’s much easier for me to take previously established characters and write fan fiction. I wish I could get my original creativity back. Where did it go in the first place?