Learning something new can be messy. When I learned to roll my own pie shells, flour covered the counters and floor and me. A white cloud hovered in the kitchen. It took longer to clean the kitchen than it did to roll the pie dough . . . but the pies were delicious.
I think it’s easier to accept a mess in the kitchen than it is to accept a mess in writing workshop. Many teachers like things to be right. In general, we’re a profession of perfectionists. This does not give us a pass on accepting that learning something new can be messy.
The heart of writing workshop depends on students constantly growing as writers. This means they are always in the midst of new learning. Learning something new is usually messy.
I’m not saying to leave things a mess. I cleaned up the kitchen after I learned to roll pie shells. Today, years later, I can whip out a pie shell from scratch in just a few minutes and the cleanup is a breeze. Part of learning something new is tidying up the mess, rather than avoiding the mess. When the mess is dodged, too often the learning is thwarted.
The fact is, as writing teachers, we must learn to embrace the mess of students approximating the work of writers. This is the first step to students growing as writers. Here are four ways to embrace the mess of learning and growing writers.
Look for the Almost
By adopting a celebration mind-set, we can move from being annoyed by the errors to being excited for students who are about to learn something new. For example, many seven- and eight-year-old writers will connect their sentences with the conjunction and. It is quite likely they will have an entire page of writing, with 16 ands, followed by one ending punctuation mark (typically a period) at the very end of the page.
It would be easy to be disheartened, wondering why the student doesn’t know how to write a complete sentence. However, if we choose a celebration mind-set, we will find reasons to be excited for this young writer.
First, he knows how to stretch his writing to fill the page. Next, he knows that ending punctuation goes at the end of something. Finally, he is ready to learn how to write a compound sentence. It’s not that he doesn’t know how to write a complete sentence; instead, he is showing us that he is ready to write a more sophisticated sentence.
He knows sentences can be joined with the conjunction and. What he still needs to learn is how often he can use a conjunction in a single sentence. Sixteen times is too many. Once is not. When we notice what students are almost doing, we are able to tidy up the mess with a timely teaching point.
Much of what students do as writers is natural. For example, many students write a story to make people laugh; they aren’t thinking about using onomatopoeias to add humor. They use sound words because it makes the story funny.
When we name the strength—Your use of onomatopoeias, sound words, really adds to the humor in your writing—students begin to own the strategies they are using. Then they use them again, intentionally.
When a previous teaching point has become part of the students’ work as a writer, we can name this as a strength. When we identify students’ growth, their confidence grows. In addition, it allows teachers to realize that growth is possible and timely.
Allow Time for Practice
Students need to write more than we can possibly read. Students need to write more than what will be assessed. Students need ample time to practice writing. The way to get better at anything is to practice. Sometimes writing practice looks messy. Students stare out the window, sharpen their pencils three times, and rewrite a draft in neater handwriting.
Despite the mess, we must ensure that students have plenty of practice time each day as writers. Is your minilesson short enough that students have ample time to write? Does the share session need to be moved to another time of the day so students can have sustained writing time? Are your students using writing time to write, or is it necessary to review procedures and routines to empower every student to write? The way students will grow as writers is to write and write and write.
Collect Student Writing
When we collect student writing, we have access to mentors that resonate with students. Collecting student writing can be messy. I know, because I have a camera roll full of student writing. It is one thing to see the way Patricia Polacco weaves setting details to make readers feel like they are in the story. It is completely different to see a student use setting details.
As we begin to collect student work, we can adjust our expectations. Student work is messy, too. There are erasures and cross-outs. Misspellings and lack of ending punctuation can makes us question whether it is a good idea to use students as mentors. It is a good idea. It has taken years of practice for Patricia Polacco to develop her abilities to weave a story. By collecting student writing, we can learn the caliber of writing to expect from our students.
Don’t Miss the Joy
When we embrace the mess of new learning, we position ourselves to help students grow faster and stronger as writers. There is joy that comes from recognizing this growth. Not only can we learn to accept messy learning, but we can choose to be joyful about the approximations students make as writers.