Chapter 1: Discovering, Questioning, Talking and Imagining: Writing NonFiction
When I began teaching in the early 1990s, I brought a lively inquisitive stance strengthened by a familiarity with a growing body of nonfiction writing for children. Teaching writing was new to me, bundled up as it was with the many complex issues of helping young writers move from the physical control of the pencil to achieving a sense of confident independence. The easiest route to this goal was to tap into children’s burgeoning curiosity about the world. Even the most reluctant writers had things they were passionate about, questions they had pondered, things they had noticed. How could we together use writing as a way of deepening our understanding and sharing what we were learning about the world outside – whether it involved the praying mantis that someone brought into class from their backyard, or had to do with a unit on the peoples and cultures of the Arctic that we together had chosen to study? Collecting ideas for writing was the easy part – we had little notebooks which we filled with ideas for future writing. The more challenging aspect was how to allow these young writers to express their learning in formats that allowed their voices to be heard, without forcing their writing into a form determined by the need for uniformity. Through using interactive writing, I was able to provide some sample mentor texts that could be used as inspirational models, especially for those writers who needed a more guided approach. And of course, I shared many nonfiction picturebooks that showed some of the myriad possibilities for presenting information in an interesting and engaging way. In the classrooms in which I taught for the first ten years of my career, children “published” many pieces of nonfiction – from personal narratives to pieces about hobbies and favorite activities to works about animals, space, big machines. We were making books to share our learning with others. When I look back at my first years of teaching, full of false starts and do-overs, I hope that I was conveying that writing is a natural consequence of being a curious and engaged person. I was on my way to learning that if you as a teacher present yourself as a person who is curious, who uses writing to collect observations, to tell about what you’ve noticed, what you’re wondering about, what you’re surprised at, then you’re showing the children in your care that writing is an activity as normal as walking or breathing. In fact, writing is a characteristic of someone who knows that learning goes on all the time, for a lifetime.
For me, writing is a natural consequence of being a curious and engaged person. If you’re the kind of person who’s curious about the world, you probably do some kind of writing. You are capturing what you’ve noticed, what you’re curious about, what you’re perplexed about. Perhaps you have a writer’s notebook, into which you place your observations, questions, memories. Maybe you write electronically, and keep your writing stored online, in the form of a blog. The experience of writing often, daily if possible, gives the writer a lot of rewards. Many writers report that daily writing helps them concentrate and gives them a focus. Others say it helps them relax, that it acts almost like a kind of meditation, and that the process of writing can even slow down a racing heart. Many writers talk about writing as a process of discovery. They discover things they hadn’t thought of before. Others have reported feeling happier and having increased gratitude about the circumstances of their lives. Research around the habits and attitudes of people who write daily backs this up.
Having the identity of a writer, of saying that “I am someone who writes”, can have a powerful influence on the children with whom teachers work.
For a teacher who writes there are multiple rewards. Teaching is a stressful job. If writing can produce a sense of relaxation, concentration, or discovery, and feelings of happiness and gratitude, then, I would argue, these rewards alone are worth aiming for. But I would also say that having the identity of a writer, of saying that “I am someone who writes”, can have a powerful influence on the children with whom teachers work. If you present yourself as a person who is curious, who uses writing to collect observations, to put into words what you’ve noticed, what you’re wondering about, what you’re surprised at, then you’re showing the children in your care that writing is an activity as normal as walking or breathing. It demonstrates that writing is a characteristic of someone who is curious about the world, of someone who knows that learning goes on all the time, for a lifetime.
Of course, let’s be realistic. There are many reasons some teachers would choose not to write. Teachers are very busy people. It takes a lot of time and effort just to keep the daily routines up and running. Many need the time to relax when school is out for the day; and then there are the many responsibilities of family and home. Someone needs to make a grocery run, take a child to dance class or soccer practice. Also, writing can feel like a solitary activity. Some may not like the solitude that’s required, or may not be able to find a quiet place in a busy house. Others would prefer to spend their leisure time reading rather than writing. Whatever the reasons, many teachers seem to have negative reactions to the thought of writing on their own. It’s hard, lonely work, and the rewards are not evident or immediate; the frustrations are plenty. However, we know, as teachers, we are a powerful presence in the lives of the children we work with. What remains the most important factor in pointing the way to success for our students is the stance that a teacher takes, the identity that a teacher projects. If that identity is of someone who writes, who knows that writing is a way to support noticing, observing, discovery, then children will see writing as something that curious people do.