Sunday, May 30, 2010

Reflection on Writing Mentors

Before my class begins at the end of June, I’ve been asked to read Ralph Fletcher’s What a Writer Needs. As I sit here reading and reflecting on the opening chapters, my one and a half year old plops himself at my feet, an arc of picture and board books around him. He’s thumbing through page after page, babbling words, trying on different voices. When I lay my pen down, he makes a grab for it so that he might mark his pages like mommy is marking hers.

It seems fitting that Fletcher’s first chapter is on “Mentors,” beginning with Haim Ginott’s quote:
“I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher I possess tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal.”

My little one reminds me that even in our quiet moments we are mentors, modeling for our students our beliefs and expectations. It isn’t just what we say to motivate, engage, and encourage students; it’s about what we do. We pass on our love of reading and writing when students see us reading and writing.

Fletcher also makes the point that as writing teachers we are writing mentors and as such must take care to foster a relationship with our students that enables them to grow in their writing process. This involves finding the important balance of maintaining high expectations and encouraging novice writers. Mentors must be careful not to overly praise mediocre work while remembering that “Even in a ‘bad’ piece of writing, the mentor reaches into the chaos, finds a place where the writing works, pulls it from the wreckage, names it, and makes the writer aware of this emerging skill with words” (14). But what resonated with me most was Fletcher’s advice on risk.

By holding to a suffocating definition of what constitutes “good” writing or formulas for how particular pieces should (or shouldn’t) be written, we not only strangle the life out of our students’ writing, but we also deprive them of the joy that comes from playing with language. “You don’t learn to writing by going through a series of preset writing exercises. You learn to write by grappling with a real subject that truly matters to you” (4). Formulaic writing prompts only result in predictable, unimaginative essays written for the teacher to shred with the dripping red pen. What does this teach our students? How to write an essay for a particular teacher – one person. And although students do need to learn what how to meet a variety of expectations throughout their lifetime, isn’t it more important that students learn to write for more than one person at a time, to take a risk in their writing, and learn to appeal to larger audiences? The danger, as Fletcher points out, is that under such writing assignments our students learn to write for one particular teacher’s rules “instead of trying to internalize their own high standards for writing” (22). As writing teachers, writing mentors, we must find ways to encourage novice writers to play, take risks, and internalize their own high standards for writing.

Fletcher points to a wonderful quote by Patrick Shannon, “Risk allows children to outgrow themselves” (17). A writer constrained by the schema of right and wrong when it comes to writing will never find the “fluency and playfulness, the time and perseverance she will need over the long haul to become a skillful writer” (17). We must remember how we came to love writing and foster those moments, that environment, in our classrooms. My guess is that very few people remember one assignment or writing prompt that “turned” them into a good writer. Instead, good writers are grown in nurturing environments: fed with honest and compassionate feedback, allowed to stretch their writing limbs, to dig into their roots, and cultivated with creative and authentic writing experiences. Writing mentors remember that writing is a process not an end point, and therefore, we must nurture the journey.

Fletcher, Ralph. What a Writer Needs. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann, 1993. Print.

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