When I taught high school English, I became familiar with the dramatic moans and groans from some students after I said, We get to write today! Some students, clearly uncomfortable with this task, resisted by saying, I’m not a writer or I don’t write or I’m not good at writing.
In my early years of teaching, I used to buy into that kind of fixed mindset. To help them, I provided structure (e.g., 5-paragraph essay worksheets) and strategies (e.g., daily journal prompts). Even though some of them improved on academic writing, they never said I’m a writer, and that really bothered me. I wanted my students to leave my classroom believing that they were writers in some way.
In my latter years, I responded to students’ comments by saying, Everyone is a writer. We just have to figure out what you want to write about and how you want to write it. This shift led me to the belief that learning to write is an identity process that involves taking on behaviors and discourses that are associated with writers. Rather than telling students about characteristics of a good argument, I realized that students needed to develop their own ideas about good arguments by reading and writing arguments. In other words, students were not benefitting from being passive observers of writing in my classroom. Instead they needed to be active producers in a writing community. This meant providing more opportunities to write in various ways, talk about how and what they write in and out of school, and make connections with local authors and writing communities.
Overall, I started to wonder how educators could foster the identity work of writers in their classrooms. Below, we (all former middle and high school English teachers and current teacher educators), talk about ways that teachers can open more consistent and supportive opportunities for students to write in ways that allow them to try on various behaviors and discourses associated with writing, what we call identity work.
Ask students to define what being a writer means to them and how they see themselves as writers.
One way to engage students in this kind of identity work is by asking them to both individually and collaboratively answer the following questions:
- How do you define a writer?
- Would you call yourself a writer? Why or why not?
- Do others describe you as a writer? Why or why not?
- Describe all of the things that you wrote today.
- What kinds of things do you like to write?
- What kinds of things do you struggle with in your writing?
- Why is it important to write?
To get the most out of these responses, it would be best to pose these questions over time with enough support so that students have the opportunity to think critically about their answers.
For example, one discussion could be focused on the first question: How do you define a writer? Teachers could ask students to fill in the following sentence: A writer is… To keep answers concise and manageable, ask students to keep the response to one sentence. Students also benefit from creating a visual that goes with their statement. From there, students could share those statements in small and large groups. Next, the class could talk about how the class collectively defines a writer and what that might mean for their personal and collective goals for writing during the year. These kind of reflective questions and discussions give students an opportunity to unpack why they situate themselves the way they do within a writing space. It might also help them to see that a writing identity is not fixed.
Help students develop membership into a writing community.
Identity work includes reflecting about the kind of writer you are and the kind of writer you want to be. In order to identify as writers, students need to see themselves as members of some kind of writing community. One way to help students imagine themselves within those writerly worlds is by asking local authors to come talk to the class. Authors can talk about how/why they became writers, describe what they’ve written (maybe read something), how and why they work within writing communities, and then engage students in some kind of writing exercise. By hearing a variety of authors, students are able to see the strategies that skilled writers do that can potentially make those concepts more accessible for them as less experienced writers. In addition, by hearing about local and online writing communities students learn about the resources that are available to them if they would like to join.
Give students time to write and share their writing with their peers.
To engage in the identity work of writers, students need to write and talk about writing with their peers. Many teachers are already doing this in the form of peer revision. Although we agree with that kind of peer work, we are advocating for time when students read their work and talk about both content and structure. Here, teachers can ask students to write about everyday occurrences that might help them make sense of bigger issues. For example, students could write occasional papers each six weeks that reflect and open discussion about everyday events. Specifically, occasional papers are “intended to reflect responses to life as it happens; the idea is to take advantage of an occasion for thought, to explore the occurrences of a moment that would usually be dismissed as unimportant” (Martin, 2002, p. 52). These papers are meant to be read aloud to a group of their peers. Rather than critique them for style or syntax, grades were given based on sharing an essay that posed a question in a way that fostered discussion within the classroom.
Give assignments that ask students to write about topics that help them make sense of themselves and the world around them.
To foster identity work, students need opportunities to write about relevant experiences. One genre that has worked best with our young writers’ camp is digital storytelling. Students choose anything they want to write about and then develop that essay/story into a three minute video. Although the videos are short, the stories are powerful ways for students to articulate how they deal with grief, anxiety, and other ways of being that individuals experience everyday. Plus, Storycenter has categorized examples to share as mentor texts with students.
Challenge students to critically examine how identities (race, class, gender, etc.) shape how and what gets written by whom.
Another way to foster identity work is by asking students to think about how and why their identities matter when reading and writing. This means asking students questions like:
- In what ways does race impact what people write about? How does gender shape the topics you read and write about?
- What might prepare you for creating a character that is culturally and linguistically different from you?
- In what ways does your position as a teen shape how, what, and why you write? Are teen writers taken seriously? Why or why not?
One exercise that has been successful with students is to share Maureen Johnson’s Coverflip in which she presented how people on Twitter answered her challenge: take a well-known book, then imagine the author of the book is the opposite gender or genderqueer, and imagine what the cover would look like. In class, teacher and students could review the responses via the Twitter challenge and then engage in their own reimaginings using books from the school library.
Another helpful way to enter into such critical conversations is by asking students to think critically about their positions as teens and how that impacts their writing. English Journal has a themed issue dedicated to rethinking adolescence with practical ways to apply this critical thinking in the classroom, along with the recent book, Rethinking the “Adolescent” in Adolescent Literacy.
These kinds of activities can open spaces for individuals to write about experiences that are typically silenced or ignored and can be a way to make change in a world that maintains traditional notions of what it means to be female, African American, and/or a teen (Blackburn, 2002; Haddix, M., & Sealey‐Ruiz, Y., 2012). In other words, helping students critically examine narrow definitions of a writer might open up opportunities for students to position themselves as writers in ways they had not done in the past (Vetter, 2010).
Ultimately, we agree that in order for our students to identify as writers, they need to write consistently. The poet Mark Nepo says that many writers get so hung up on preparing to “be” a writer that they forget to write. To elaborate, he says, “We [children] are being told to become a noun, and the vitality of life is in staying a verb.” The identity work of writers, then, is very much tied to the action of writing.
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Dr. Amy Vetter is an associate professor of English education in the School of Education at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, where she teaches undergraduate courses in teaching practices and curriculum of English and literacy in the content area, and graduate courses in youth literacies, teacher research, and qualitative research design. Her areas of research interest are literacy and identity, critical conversations, and the writing lives of teens.