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By Sarah Guckert • May 12, 2017

How to Teach Writing like a Bestselling Author

Jodi Picoult, Laraine Herring, and Jen Bryant offer advice on how educators can inspire students to write and open minds to the world outside the classroom

In school districts across the country, most students aren’t getting the support they need to build competency in writing. With only 24% of incoming eighth graders performing at proficient levels, educators need tools and solutions to teach writing as a response to reading and build critical thinking skills in young learners.

The National Writing Project provides professional development and research with the goal of achieving a “future where every person is an accomplished writer, engaged learner, and active participant in a digital, interconnected world.” We reached out to three authors on the NWP’s Writer’s Council to share their perspective and advice on the importance of writing in early education.

Jodi Picoult

Jodi Picoult

Jodi Picoult is the author of twenty-three novels. Her last 8 novels debuted at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. Before pursuing a master’s in education at Harvard, Jodi was an eighth grade English teacher. http://www.jodipicoult.com/

Laraine Herring

Laraine Herring

Laraine Herring’s short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in national and local publications. Her fiction has won the Barbara Deming Award for Women and her nonfiction work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Laraine directs the creative writing program at Yavapai College. http://www.laraineherring.com/

Jen Bryant

Jen Bryant

Jen Bryant writes poetry, biographies and novels for readers of all ages. Her books have won many national awards, including two Caldecott Honors and the 2015 Robert F. Sibert Medal. She has taught writing and Children’s Literature at West Chester University and Bryn Mawr College. http://www.jenbryant.com/

When and why did you first begin writing?

Jodi Picoult: I cannot remember a time I didn’t write. My first “book” was written when I was five and I illustrated it too.

Laraine Herring: When I was five and first learned how to make the letters into magic. I've been writing stories ever since. I'll never forget the moment the lines went from abstract marks to a key to the imagination.

Jen Bryant: When I was growing up in a small town in New Jersey, I didn’t know anyone who was a professional writer. In fact, I never gave much thought to the people who wrote the books that I loved to read (such as The Black Stallion series, by Walter Farley—one of my childhood favorites). In college, I studied French and German and became a language teacher after graduation—but I still didn’t think much about the writing profession per se. Later, we moved and I had a baby; for the first time, I began to think about the authors and poets behind the books that I loved to read. I started to read more as (an aspiring) writer and to ask myself—could I do this? Of course, I didn’t imagine I would be good at it right away. I knew it would take a lot of practice, but during that first year when I wasn’t teaching full time, I began to write some nonfiction pieces, some (very bad) poetry, and to contribute to anthologies. Over the next several years, I found a couple of poets who mentored me and helped me learn how to be a better reader and self-editor. During this time, I continued to write nonfiction articles and also some books for young readers, usually for a flat fee and as part of a larger series. That was great training because I was still learning how to research and to write on a deadline—skills that I would later use in my own stand-alone titles in the genres of historical fiction and biography.

How can teachers inspire students to write?

Jodi: I used to teach, so I know that although it’s important to write a cohesive analytical essay — you have to make kids fall in love with the act of writing, not the product. To that end, you need to give assignments that allow for freedom. If a kid wants to write a comic book, great. If a kid wants to write a sports story about hockey stats, excellent. Poetry. Song lyrics. Whatever. Also, I recommend giving assignments that highlight the magic of creativity. I used to organize my eighth graders’ desks into groups of five and leave a brown paper bag on each cluster. Inside the bag were random things: an empty spool, a photograph of a baby, a gum wrapper, a plane ticket, etc. Their job was to each write something that incorporated all of these objects. When they shared the results with the rest of the class, they were amazed by how different each piece of writing was, with the same ingredients.

[Y]ou have to make kids fall in love with the act of writing, not the product. To that end, you need to give assignments that allow for freedom.

Laraine: By getting away from standardized testing and teaching and encouraging students to write, not to a formula or always for a specific purpose (though there's a place for that, obviously), but to a question. Let them wonder without a need for an answer. Allow them to explore their world through writing without marking everything wrong (especially at the K-8 years). Students need to play with language before it becomes a red-pen-feared place. They need to first learn that within themselves lie many answers, if they're willing to inquire. If they're so worried about writing the "right" answer that the teacher wants to hear, then they will not develop a love of writing, and more soul-crushing, they won't learn how to trust their own voices.

Jen: I believe that if teachers can make the activity of “writing” as fluid as possible in their classrooms, then students lose their fear of constantly being judged every time they compose. It can be something as simple as taking the class outside and having them describe what they notice, or showing them a short film or a piece of art and having them make journal entries about it. As long as this kind of activity is done with some frequency and is NOT graded, then the student begins to have a sense of freedom and ownership of his/ her composing. I also believe that students who have trouble generating any kind of writing can be helped by viewing the drafts and notes and lists of other, more experienced writers. In this way, they can see that writing often begins in a very messy, non-linear, list-making way (and I speak from experience here—I am a VERY messy drafter!) that it is ok to start that way.

I believe that if teachers can make the activity of “writing” as fluid as possible in their classrooms, then students lose their fear of constantly being judged every time they compose.

What can writing teach young learners about the world?

Jodi: Writing teaches kids how to verify facts, how to present a cohesive argument and argue their point, how to learn about something you do not know. It also allows, through point of view exercises, for kids to imagine what it might be like to be someone they are not, and to sift through that perspective. In this way, writing can open minds.

Laraine: Writing and reading go hand in hand. Teachers could use writing questions as prompts to help students dialogue with a text. Writing can be used as a personal line of inquiry into a short story or a poem or an essay. These questions can be brought to the larger group to discuss literature and writing in a broader context. Writing doesn't simply provide information. Done well, it inspires new ideas and perspectives — and that is something our world needs to continue to embrace more fully and deeply. Writing and reading cultivate empathy - the most important thing as we move forward into the 21st century. Writing and reading build bridges, not walls.

Writing doesn't simply provide information. Done well, it inspires new ideas and perspectives — and that is something our world needs to continue to embrace more fully and deeply.

Jen: I think writing of any kind teaches young learners more about who they are and where they fit in the scheme of things. I know that’s a big statement and it doesn’t happen quickly… but a student who makes regular entries in a notebook or journal can look back at what he/ she has written over the course of weeks or months and they can hear their own voice coming off of the page. That’s especially empowering for kids who often don’t have much of a voice in their own lives—to see that “YES, here I am, here is what matters to me, this is how I see myself in the context of the larger world.”

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