By Ruth Ayers
“What do you do with a student who won’t write?” This is the kind of question that keeps us up at night. In a world where everything we do is urgent, it can be wearisome to watch kids refuse to write.
Research is sure of the importance of students engaging as writers. In a 2004 article from Ed Leadership, Peter Elbow writes, “Weakness in reading often stems from neglect of writing. Students will put more care and attention into reading when they have had more of a chance to write what’s on their minds and when they have been given more opportunities to assume the role of writer” (13).
This doesn’t make us feel better as teachers of writers who refuse to write. In fact, it can often make our approach to students more controlled and lockstep. We want to make the right moves, say the right things, and provide the right conditions so kids will write. Nothing can be more detrimental to a hard-to-reach writer than a teacher who is trying to fix everything. The more we try to get things right with hard-to-reach writers, the more they dig in their heels and refuse to write.
This is why I like to think about enticing writers. Entice is from Old French, enticier, which means to “set on fire.” Instead of thinking about ways to make kids write, I invite us to think about how we can set kids on fire for writing. How might we incite excitement for writing?
The move I make is often counterintuitive: I offer students choice.
Choice gives control to the student. When we allow students control in their writing lives, then they write. We know this, which is why many teachers give students the option of topic. “You can write about anything you want,” we profess.
And students have nothing to write about.
This is because unlimited choice is still no choice. Limitless space and no boundaries doesn’t help students have control over their writing lives. It just makes the unknown more vast and unapproachable.
Here are some ways to expand our thinking of choice to entice students to write:
1. Topic -- Instead of offering students the choice to write about anything, offer them a springboard. For example, if the student has written about fishing with grandpa, then ask, “Do you have more fishing stories? Do you have more grandpa stories?”
2. Work space -- I have several places I like to work as a writer. Most of the time you will find me in front of the fireplace under a quilt. However, if I were forced to always work in my favorite writing space, I wouldn’t be as effective. Writers ought to have choice over their work spaces. Give students the choice of where to work. (Naturally we will offer procedures for ensuring strong work habits.)
3. Tools -- Give students the choice to write on a computer or in a notebook. Offer different paper choices. Many professional writers have a certain pen or pencil that makes them more comfortable placing words on the page. Let’s offer our students the same choices.
4. Audience -- Audience matters to writers. Set up systems in your writing workshop to allow students to share their writing projects with others. Although it is important to have audiences for finished projects, it is important to have an audience (or writing partner) for the process. I go to different writing partners for help. There are some writing partners who help me get words on the page and others who allow me questions and space for revision. This choice is a crucial one for me as a writer.
5. Non-word options -- Sometimes students need the opportunity to sketch or draw before they put words on the page. Reading a mentor text is another way-in to writing. Giving students space to do a few minutes of research can often bolster writing time. If I’m writing in the afternoon or evening, I usually go for a walk first. Although this isn’t realistic for our students, maybe a few yoga moves next to the windows in your classroom is an option.
By expanding our views of the choices we offer young writers, we can entice them to write in meaningful ways.
Ruth Ayres is the author of Enticing Hard-to-Reach Writers from Stenhouse (2017).
Elbow, Peter. “Writing First!” Educational Leadership, vol. 62, no. 2, Oct. 2004, pp. 9–13.