Empowering Children As Writers, Letting Their Voices be Heard

I am a writer who still chooses to find my voice and craft my words with paper and pen in hand.  In today’s technology driven world, writers have so many choices and ways to share their ideas and communicate their messages for others to read, hear, view, and access.   To be honest, some days I am overwhelmed with the amount of tools I have to sort through and begin to explore if I am to help my students be prepared and to participate in an ever-increasing digital world.   IMG_4188I am pushed outside my comfort zone bringing new technologies, such as web-based writing tools, and digital and social media tools into my classroom. At the same time, I take comfort knowing that one goal remains constant; to help my students become good writers, who write with a strong and confident voice, with skill and creativity, and who both care and have a message to share.

As I reflect on what it means to be a good writer, I know that the beliefs I held thirty years ago still apply today, even in a world that presents so many different ways to communicate our ideas and feelings. My worry is that teachers are forgetting the essential conditions that they need to ensure are in place if they are to succeed in helping their students become caring, confident, and skilled writers.  We cannot believe that the simple act of bringing laptops and i-Pads into classrooms for children to use will help them become competent writers.

IMG_2112I am reminded of a keynote address I gave fifteen years ago to 300 teachers at a literacy conference titled, “Empowering Children As Writers, Letting their Voices Be Heard”.  I think the message I shared is still relevant and necessary today.

I began . . .

“Children sit passively at their desks and listen with glossy eyes.  They expect someone to tell them what to do.  They go through the motions of filling out dittos, answering reading questions, copying off chalkboards and when school is over, they burst through the schoolhouse door and into their lives.”

IMG_4179In 1984, John Goodlad wrote these words in his book, A Place Called School. How many classrooms still fit this description today (a few changes perhaps, worksheets instead of dittos, whiteboards instead of chalkboards)?

My keynote continued.

How can we expect children to develop into competent and caring writers when they are silenced throughout their school lives and the people and things they know, wonder, and care about?  Children need to be actively engaged and personally involved in their writing in order to become writers.

How many children still sit silently in their classrooms waiting for their teachers to tell them what to write?

Today, my words still resonate with me.  As I reflect on the beliefs and principles that shape and guide my practice as a teacher of writers, my beliefs and guiding principles haven’t changed.  Lucy Calkins in the Art of Teaching Writing, published in 1986, wrote, IMG_4181“Writing does not begin with desk work.  It begins with life work”.  She talked about filling our classrooms with children’s lives as a starting point and as an essential condition in helping to make writing personal, as well as interpersonal, for children.  “When writing is connected to children’s lives, they can begin to care about writing and find reasons to write.”

I still believe this is an essential foundation to helping children become writers. But I also know that in order for me to connect with young writers today (students who live in the 21st century) I must also move into the digital world and invite my students to explore new tools and genres; today, for me, this is becoming a new essential condition. IMG_0182-1  I add the importance of accessing, exploring, and using technology as a writing tool to the other five essential conditions that I believe we must not lose sight of.

Five Essential Conditions

Trusting them as writers . . . 

Firstly, teachers need to convey to children their trust and belief in them as writers.  When children begin to see themselves as capable writers they begin to take control of their learning.  Dr. Marie Clay, the founder of “Reading Recovery, and author of Becoming Literate, once said to me, “Never take the pencil out of young writers’ hands.  Let them write any way they can.” IMG_0265 Teachers need to recognize and celebrate children’s first attempts at recording their thoughts on paper; these first attempts are important first steps in becoming independent writers.

At two and half years of age, I remember our daughter Madeline headed into the bathroom to have her hair shampooed. We noticed that we were out of shampoo.  Madeline quickly ran into the kitchen, retrieved a piece of paper and scribbled a wiggly line.  “What does it say,” I asked.  “Shampoo,” I read as she held up the paper.  “Ah, a shopping list?” I added.  She nodded smiling.  Here was a young learner who had yet to be told she couldn’t write or that she needed to first learn all the letters and their sounds before she could write independently.  IMG_0264Madeline considered herself a writer, or at least a list maker.  She had a message to communicate and a real reason to write.  Whether crafting web texts, audio texts, drafting in a Writers’ Notebook, or creating digital stories, video clips, using social media or scribbling with a crayon, all writers need to own their craft and be trusted in finding their way in communicating their message.

Children also need to be trusted in finding their own topics. When students are always directed and given the topics to write about, teachers may believe that they are helping children to enter the writing process; however, they are instead, albeit unknowingly, conveying the message that their lives are not worth writing about. When children struggle over and take time to find their own topics the process of writing becomes more meaningful to them. This is what real writers do.

In my collection of incredible stories children have crafted over my 33 years as a writing teacher, I look back and I am grateful to have read Lucy Calkins’ beautiful book.  If I had told Sabrina what to write about that day, so many years ago, her story, “Saying good-bye to Max” would have never been heard.

Sabrina, grade 3

Sabrina, grade 3

Writing for real purposes . . .

Secondly, in order for children to become independent writers, teachers need to engage children in writing that reflects real life practices.  Providing children with meaningful writing tasks positively impacts on their writing skills. IMG_2614 In our classrooms, children need to write for their own purposes.  They need to view writing as a powerful tool that gives them the control over their lives.  Students need to believe in the power of communicating their message through their writing.  This holds true for writing that is crafted with pen and paper, or on screen through images, web pages, and more.

Time to write . . . 

A third essential condition that greatly influences the development of children’s writing is giving children time to write.  Its’ that simple: children learn to write by writing.  Children need many opportunities to write in a variety of ways and for a variety of purpose.  They need time to explore, experiment, and play with writing.  IMG_2828They need time to draft and redraft and talk about their wiring with people they trust and care about.  And this holds true again with digital writing; children need to explore new ways and technologies to communicate their ideas, messages, and information.  We need to embrace the messiness of writing and creating, and invite children to share their stories in a variety of ways and voices, genres and forms.

A community of writers who care . . .

A fourth and equally important factor which is instrumental in moving children’s writing forward is a learning community.  Children need the knowledge that they are writing for and with people, whom both they care about and who care about them.  When children belong to a community of writers and write for a real audience they write with greater effort and investment.  Writing begins to matter when we know someone is waiting to read or listen to what we have written.  Writing begins to matter when our efforts are celebrated and responded to by people who care. Screen Shot 2015-02-15 at 7.18.24 PMIn today’s classrooms, young writers have opportunities to make their voices heard around the world as they blog, create web pages, pod casts, and send out tweets and emails.  Technology tools allow writers to be part of a global citizenship.

Seeing the work of others . . . 

Finally, young writers need to hear the stories of other writers.  Children need many opportunities to listen and respond to literature. The reading aloud of wonderful stories is the fifth essential condition that assists students in becoming writers and raising the quality of their writing.  IMG_1263Literature plays a key role in helping children find their own voices; it sparks thoughts and unlocks memories and helps create a community of storytellers. The sharing the work of authors must also include web-based resources, exemplars of web designs, podcasts, blogs, video clips, tweets and more.


Don’t take the pencils and notebooks away.

The essential conditions that need to be understood and present in classrooms haven’t changed, with one addition:

  • Trusting students as writers.IMG_2311
  • Writing for real purposes.
  • Time to write.
  • A community of writers who care.
  • Seeing the work of others.
  • Exploring and using digital tools.

I still believe our most youngest writers need to take pencil in hand and begin their journey as writers, scribbling their way onto pages to be shared.  Students still need to be taught what it means to be a good writer – to be coherent, persuasive, and witty, to be interesting, articulate, even poetic. Students still need to learn how to make decisions about crafting their writing whether on paper or digital. My goal is to create classrooms where children belong to a community of writers who care, and their stories are listened to and celebrated by someone who matters, and their voices are heard.




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Words for a New Year

As I walked my dog Max through Crescent Park, I was moved by the warmth and smiles I received from strangers as they passed by saying, “Happy New Year!” “Happy New Year!” For every individual who has spoken or heard this, I wonder what message or memory is attached to these three simple words?

For myself, the phrase “Happy New Year” signifies a time for reflection and a time for planning; a time to look back over the past year and look forward to the coming one. It signifies a new year of hope and opportunities; opportunities to heal from tragedies and disappointments, to forget worries and mistakes, and to move forward; opportunities to start new goals, or refocus on old ones, and, most importantly, opportunities to choose to be happy.

IMG_3546-3Happy New Year! How many times have these three words been shared since the clock struck midnight on January 1st? By now we are well into the New Year, and even so, I am certain that these three words continue to be shared by many well-wishers all over the world. And so here I am, wishing all my colleagues, friends, and family, a Happy New Year!

This September I became a blogger and over the holiday break, I have enjoyed reading other blogs. The New Year seems to invite bloggers to reflect on past years and to make plans for the New Year. There also seems to be a blogging tradition of choosing one word that captures or becomes an overarching theme for the New Year. Instead of making New Year resolutions, or a long list of goals, the practice of choosing a single word to focus on every day, all year long, is something new to me. To choose one word to sum up how you want to live and be, one word that guides your actions and decisions through out the year is no easy task. Out of so many possibilities, the choosing of one perfect word is indeed a formidable task. Chosen words such as “compassion”, “joy”, “relationship”, “patience”, “courage”, “kindness”, and “contribution”, have been shared and written about; all wonderful words that I could see myself choosing; however, as I write and think about the many single words that resonate with me, I keep returning to three word phrases instead.

Like the single phrase “Happy New Year”, three other phrases come to mind that have important messages and memories attached to them. Not only do these three phrases remind me of three amazing mentors and educators that I have had the privilege to work with, but these phrases have guided my work with students and continue to do so; they reflect my beliefs and values as an educator: “collect before direct”, “tell me more” and “slow to grow”.

“Collect before direct”

The most important gift I can give a child is an invitation to exist in my presence, to be wanted, to belong, to be significant, to be seen, to matter. Building attachments is the first priority of all development. One of my beliefs as a teacher is that learning is promoted when children are prized and cared about. Gordon Neufeld, a developmentalist psychologist and author of the book Hold on to Your Kids, uses the word “collecting” as a simple yet powerful, way to build attachments with our students.

As a classroom teacher, every morning I went through an “attachment ritual”.   As children arrived they would be invited in. Even if they arrived early, I would be ready to open the door and welcome them in.   As every child entered the room, I would take the time to greet each child by name, bending down to their level so I was able to collect their eyes, a smile, and a nod. I would offer a kind word, a comment, making a connection, sharing an observation, asking a question. This simple, yet incredibly powerful action, helped me earn their trust and affection and their desire to please and to be taught.   I continue to remind myself to always, “collect before I direct”.

“Tell me more”

Classrooms need to be places where children’s voices are heard. If students are to actively be engaged in the process of thinking, we need to invite their ideas. Explaining, telling, and showing how, these traditional didactic modes of teaching need to be limited. Another belief I have about teaching and learning is that a teacher’s interactions are key to encouraging students to think more deeply. Selma Wassermann, friend, mentor, author and Professor Emerita, Simon Fraser University, often spoke of the power of the three little words, “Tell me more”, a simple open invitation for students to express their ideas and move to clarify and analyze their thinking.

I have taught in classrooms where learners, young and old, would have been happier to be directed and told what to do. It’s often easier to be told then to have to think and work things out for yourself, especially if that is what you have been doing throughout your school years. Helping children become confident, self-directed, independent thinkers isn’t always easy; it takes patience and time to develop.

“Slow to grow”

My last three word phrase is a gentle reminder that good things take time to develop. I first heard this phrase used by David Booth, author and Professor Emerita, University of Toronto.

I often stop and find myself saying this phrase over and over again, especially when I find myself frustrated, or struggling – it takes a lot of “slow to grow”. Teachers, for all kinds of reasons (caring too much, controlling too much) jump in too fast to fill in the silent spaces, to tell, or to give the answer instead of waiting. We are often too quick to judge, to make assumptions, or we simply shut down concluding that “it” won’t work or happen. I remember listening carefully as David Booth spoke to a room full of teachers. He asked us, “Do you have enough courage to give the time to have the children grow and change?” He paused long enough for us to appreciate his modeling of “wait time”. And then added, “It takes a lot of slow to grow. Have the faith to wait and not give them the answer.”

Throughout my day, I have to remind myself, whether working with students or colleagues, that it takes a lot of slow to grow. We need to give not only our learners, but also ourselves, time; time to change, to learn, and to make a difference.


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Reflections from the past . . . becoming who we are.

How do we become who we are? What forces and experiences influence the development of our identity? Parker Palmer in his book, The Courage to Teach, describes identity as “an evolving nexus where all the forces that constitute life converge in the mystery of self.” It is not a simple concept; he continues: It is “my genetic make-up, the nature of the man and woman who gave me life, the culture in which I was raised, people who have sustained me and people who have done me harm, the good and ill I have done to others and to myself, the experience of love and suffering – and much, much, more” (Palmer, 1998, p. 13).

IMG_1291In today’s world I believe that changes in society have given rise to a new generation of individuals whose stories about who they are are as unique and varied as the individuals themselves. The narratives are diverse and complex, and yet, at the same time, the stories are simple and sincere.

Ten years ago while doing research for my Masters’ thesis, I remember having conversations with young learners, inviting them to share some of their thoughts. Gathered together on the carpet, I asked my five, six, and seven year old students, “Who are you?” “How did you become who you are?”

My students were young, passionate, confident and innocent. They appeared not to struggle with my questions. Their answers were straightforward and concise. I remember Sonia who shared, “I’m Sonia. I’m a girl. I’m six.” It was clear to her that she was who she was simply because she was. Others shared. Their responses all seemed to narrow down to a common denominator – it’s all in a name.

I also remember visiting the grade six and seven class next door. In my hand, I carried with me a wonderful novel. I knew how difficult it may be to engage a class in a meaningful discussion when I had not established a relationship with the students. But I also knew that a powerful piece of literature could connect us and invite some powerful responses. I began by reading a chapter from Sandra Cisneros’ thought-provoking novel, The House on Mango Street. IMG_1322The young protagonist describes who she is. She speaks of her great-grandmother. “I have inherited her name, but I don’t want to inherit her place by the window. She looked out the window her whole life, the way so many woman sit their sadness on an elbow”(Cisneros, 1984, p. 4).IMG_1323

In today’s society we have the capacity and the opportunities to make our lives different from those that came before us. These young students spoke with sincerity and wisdom. When I asked them, “Who are you?” their answers were more detailed and focused than the younger, primary students. They described their individual personalities, habits, and strengths and weaknesses. I remember a student named Jaspreet. She shared, “I am athletic and I love to eat ice-cream. I don’t like rude people, and I don’t like practicing the piano. I want to be a professional soccer player when I grow up or maybe a doctor.” IMG_1293I asked Jaspreet’s teacher to share a little about Jaspreet. She told me that Jaspreet came from a traditional Punjabi family. Her grandmother I was told was the boss of the home. Jaspreet’s mother had little power. And yet, Jaspreet appeared to be a confident and determined young female who would shape her life the way she chooses.

I am struck by the importance of our responsibilities as teachers. As teachers, we are in the business of person-making. The cultures we create in our classrooms and schools, the interactions we use, and the curriculum we implement, can make important differences in the lives of our students and who they become.   Who we are in the classroom can have profound influences on who are students become. These are important understandings we must remember as we work to create classroom cultures that will have positive effects on our students. This is not always an easy task.

I recall the words of Professor Heesoon Bai, from Simon Fraser University, who I had the privilege to work and learn beside. She spoke of culture operating as a “field of social reproduction wherein society transmits – mostly unconsciously – to its participating members’ norms of perception, beliefs, attitudes, and conduct.” She described education as foremost a “project and process of such transmission, but also a project and process of transformation whereby individuals become agents of personal and societal/cultural change.”

Teachers are agents of change and the perceptions, beliefs, attitudes, and actions they bring to their classrooms influence and impact their students’ own journeys to becoming who they are. I thank Heesoon Bai for helping me understand my own identity and in doing so, to better understand the identities of the students I have taught. As I continue working in schools with teachers, students, and their families, I must remember I am an agent of change and the perceptions, beliefs, attitudes, and actions which I bring to classrooms and schools influence and impact students’ own journeys to becoming who they are. My challenge is to accept, value, and nurture their developing selves in an effort to help all students feel a strong and positive sense of belonging.

I must remember, the way we live together in classrooms and schools, and the way in which we appreciate each other’s struggles to become who we are, can make a lasting effect on each of our lives. With this understanding, I work harder to create a special place – a place of belonging that sends the important message to all the members of our learning community: you matter.

Looking for resources that invites children to talk about and write about the stories behind their names- it is all about the name. IMG_1324

Chrysanthemum, by Kevin Henkes.

Chrysanthemum thought her name was absolutely perfect.  And then she started school.”

Leave Your Legacy, You Tube video: What will your name leave behind?  www.youtube.com/watch?v=pgjmjqrIuy4

Building an ethic of care, Kelli

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A new journey . . . begin at the beginning.

Teaching and Learning with Heart . . .

I begin a new journey – the sharing of my thoughts and opinions in this blog. When I look back on the past years, I am not surprised that I have come to this place of learning with as many questions, if not more, than I began. As I begin this journey into blogging, I give pause to reflect and to celebrate. I am reminded of the child in Amy Schwartz’s picture book, Begin at the Beginning, named Sara. She too has an important task to do. She too struggles with how to begin.

IMG_1212Oh mommy,” Sara said. “I was going to paint the earth and the sky and the day and the night and the summer and the winter and the whole universe. But I can’t”

“The universe is very big, Sara,” her mother said. Sara and her mother sat together by the window. The sky was darkening. There was a bit of a bit of a moon.

“Remember Sara,” her mother said. “You can only begin at the beginning.”

And so I begin.

Building an Ethic of Care . . .    

I believe that my quest to understand what it means to make a difference in the lives of students, teachers, and families, has not only fuelled my passion for the work I do in classrooms as a teacher of children, but for the work I do outside of the classroom as a teacher of teachers. IMG_1196Throughout my 33 years as an educator, I have worked to understand what it means and what it entails to cultivate a caring, safe, responsive, and inclusive learning environment for children and adults. I have grappled with the challenges one faces when seeking to develop community and belonging among diverse learners with differing values, beliefs, expectations, and identities.   This continues to be my goal – to build an ethic of care in the schools I have the privilege to work in.

What is this ethic of care that I write about? Nel Noddings in her book, The Challenge to Care in Schools, writes, “Caring is not just a warm fuzzy feeling that makes people kind and likeable. Caring implies a continuous search for competence.” IMG_1219For myself, this is an important distinction. When we care, we want to do our very best for others or objects we care about. Each decision I make, every action I take is from a place of caring. This ethic of care connects to my beliefs and values about teaching, learning, and living; it guides me to ask what effect will I have on the community I am trying to build? How can I show and help others to care for themselves, for others, for the world in which we live, and for ideas? The word to educate comes from the Latin word “educare”, which means to “draw forth, to bring out, to elicit”. I believe to teach is to care; I also believe it is not a coincidence that the word “care” can be found in the word “educare”. To care is to appreciate the difficulties and obstacles we as educators may face when we work towards building learning communities that truly meet the needs of all our students.

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