Student Agency in Writing

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It was the last ten minutes of the day. We had read a book. We had laughed and discussed it. We had taken 3 minutes for a much-needed brain break. Then we had gathered again at the request of two students who had some writing they wanted to share.

Earlier, during our rainy-day, indoor recess, I had marveled at the activities that were unfolding in the room. Beside four students who were on the floor with Legos, a group of six students collected at a table with laptops. They were collaborating on different writing projects of their own creation. At one point, one of the students came to ask if he could print something and go pick it up. Sure.

Fast forward to the last ten minutes. I sat with the rest of the class, and the two boys stood up in front of the group. One of them said, “We wrote a poem. We were inspired by the lights.” (That morning, to kick off December, the students had arrived to find twinkling, blue lights strung across our ceiling to create a “Winter Wonderland.”) As this boy explained why they had written the poem, the other student was passing out stapled copies for each member of the class.

WHAT! When did they do that? And, YIKES! That’s 3 pages per person of colored ink. I thought back and could picture, in a peripheral memory, the students collating copies, and even though there was a part of me cringing at all the paper and ink that I should probably have tried to control, I had to squash that voice, and marvel at THE VOICE! My students’ voice! Talk about agency. They had done all the things we’ve been talking about in writing workshop. They had used the world around them for inspiration. They had generated an idea for writing. They had come up with their own project. They had collaborated. They had written. They had created a booklet, complete with cover and illustration. They had published their work with an audience in mind. It was a heady moment. These were the actions of writers who feel empowered and connected by a writing, and reading, community.

So, I’m sitting here writing, and reflecting, and wondering. What ingredients allowed this to happen? Empowering language à la Peter H. Johnston’s Choice Words? Taking time to focus on writerly behaviors before diving in to teach a particular genre? Reading great books? Talking about authors I’ve met? Identifying learning targets? Protecting our daily writing time? Sharing our writing with each other? Pointing out student mentors as Lisa Eickholdt suggests in her recent text, Learning from Classmates: Using Students’ Writing as Mentor Texts? Having our writer’s notebooks travel back and forth between school and home?

Some combination of these and other choices led to this moment. It’s been a progression. I’ve noticed little signs along the way. There was the child whom I overheard offering to take home some writing to type it for the group so that they could work on illustrations the next day. There was the student who arrived at school, the day after I read Lady Pancake and Sir French Toast by Josh Funk, with an “inspired-by” story entitled, “The Race to the Finish in the Bakery.” Last week, students asked if I would make copies of their stories to put in our classroom library, to which our classroom librarians responded by offering to create a special space for these. And, there was the student who shared an unfinished piece with our class, and declared it his “work-in-progress.” It is this last one that might be the sign that points toward the most influential factor in developing this writing community, and the resulting student agency: I am a writing teacher who writes. I have “works-in-progress” that I discuss with my fellow writers. We are all in it together, and we are sharing our voices. Maybe this is why these writers are feeling wonderfully empowered. Whatever the ingredients, I sure hope I keep adding and stirring in the right balance, AND that I can replicate it!

Upon reflection, I might have to overlook the 3 pages of colored ink per student and instead start telling my students about the many ways student writers get published in the world beyond our classroom. Oh, the lessons I can teach!