I just read excepts from Stacy Shubitz' (Two Writing Teachers) keynote about how teachers must be writers to teach writing. She discusses the reasons that we write. She goes on to talk about how the Writers' Workshop must be a safe place for writers.
That made me think about this year and a little first grader I'll call T. He was such an obviously smart little guy. His parents, like too many of our parents, were in the middle of a divorce, trying to negotiate that difficult road of loving the kids more than they hated each other. Dad was warm and personable, troubled by how the split was affecting his kids, but he had still moved far away. T missed him very much. T's mother seemed irritable and stressed, always with a scowl on her face, trying to manage the everyday battles of being a single parent for the first time. She complained about what seemed to me to be small insignificant things and was quick to anger, almost like she was waiting for someone to "get" her. She seemed tight and closed as her heels tip tapped to our doorway. Sometimes I'd open the door and take a step back because she looked like an explosion ready to happen. Grandpa was often the one who came to school, a quiet somewhat serious man who mentioned T's temper at home more than once. T often complained about fighting in the house and loud arguments. He told stores about his mother yelling, using profanity and choking his older brother. T started the year hating writing and really did just the minimum to get by.
That continued through narrative writing. He warmed up a little as we began reports and found a topic he was interested in, but it was persuasive writing that turned him around. In persuasive writing, he found an outlet - that same outlet that I often use to deal with emotions and things I can't change. He wrote a letter to his dad telling him how much he missed him and asking him to come back. He even wrote a letter asking his Grandpa to stop smoking - gave some pretty convincing reasons too! He wrote a letter to Grandpa telling him that he didn't really like being at his house because he got really bored and asked him if he would consider buying a video gaming system. When it was time to write a Mother's Day essay, he asked if he could write about his Dad instead. However, as he searched his heart he was able to write a lovely, passionate essay about his mother's strength. He found his voice and that is what made the difference. As the year ended he was asking to pull out his writing folder to get in extra writing as he waited for dismissal.
That's the thing about writing. It's great to teach our children the genres of writing and how to edit and revise and all the other nuances of good writing, but if we can somehow make kids understand that their words can make a difference, then we open up such a healthy outlet for them. I didn't learn to write in a Writers' Workshop. I learned to write because I had so much pent up emotion and nobody to share it with. I wrote my truth, even at a very early age, and have always used writing to deal and understand life. If I could put the words on paper, I could somehow organize and leave some of the emotion there, which made me able to move forward. Voice came easily because it was the reason writing became such a powerful part of my life. Now if I can only figure out how to teach that to every child...