Seeing the Writer

Guest Post from Matthew Hall, teacher, teacher educator, and educational researcher at New York University.

As a teacher, what do you see when you look at student writing? We all have our inclinations, things our eyes are immediately drawn to when looking at student work.  Early in my teaching career, I relied on my own school experience to shape what I see. As a result, my first inclination when looking at student writing was to see grammar and spelling. More specifically, my first inclination was to see grammar and spelling errors. That’s what my teachers did for me. That’s what I did for my students. With years of practice under my belt it’s almost as if these errors light up on the page while everything else darkens and my hand instinctively moves toward the light as if it were holding a pen.

What is it for you?

What do you see when you look at student writing?

Like a trusty sidekick, my eyes are singling out misspelled words and punctuation errors. It came as a surprise to me when I found out that Abraham was in Kindergarten when he wrote this. Kindergarten! That changed things for me. Now I’m kind of impressed with the way he spelled ‘frisbee’ and ‘played’. I might push him to add another sentence. My thoughts rush to a recopied version of this piece–free of error–that can be hung up in the classroom or on the bulletin board in the hallway. Look at what a good writer this student is! He’s in Kindergarten!

But look what I did. I spoke only about the writing and I ignored the writer. What was it about this experience that motivated Abraham to write about it?    What kind of choices did he make when he drew the picture? How was he conforming or pushing back against what he’s been taught about writing? What does he think of what he wrote? What does his writing look like in other spaces?

Often, there’s an unspoken story about writing that runs in schools, that the end result of all writing should be error free compositions. It makes sense. That is what we see in the publishing world, error free publications. As teachers we don’t want to send work home that still contains errors because “the parents will think we’re not doing our job,” implying that catching errors is what teachers do when it comes to writing. All this is a symptom of what Anna Smith wrote about in her post “The Two-Faced Coin”:

Chronological time is the ultimate determiner of development in writing. Our benchmarks on this linear scale of time have been based on studies and curricula that are not based on how youth actually develop as writers, but rather how we can logically organize the products, practices and participation across a similar linear scale.

When I examine the surface “errors” of Abraham’s writing, I’m essentially making him invisible in his own education. By focusing solely on how his writing lines up with temporally clustered products and practices, I ignore HIS development and focus on the development of his PRODUCT. What would it look like if teachers felt they had the flexibility to see the writer? Well, I’m giving you permission to try it. Think beyond what your teacher eyes have been trained to see, take some of your students’ writing and see the writer. Then post a comment below and tell us all about your writers.

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One thought on “Seeing the Writer”

  1. Each year I say I’m not going to do it. Each year I try really hard but I always end up with one. I find a student that becomes my new favorite, a student that makes my heart sing when I see them walking down the hall in the morning. This year it’s Christopher. He isn’t even my student! I’m lucking enough to work alongside teachers thinking about our writing instruction and this is where I met Christopher. I first meet him in his personal narrative. He wrote about getting pizza, hot pizza, with his Dad. In his small moment narrative I met a boy that loves his family and is able to use pictures and words to share his memories with others. Later I would learn the proper way to fold towels; Christopher taught me this in his book all about laundry titled Wash and Fold. He happens to spend a lot of time in the laundrymat after school. Christopher’s voice as a writer is strong because his teacher has helped him develop an identity as a writer. He is able to put himself in his writing because his teacher knows that is where he belongs. Yes, there are many conventions of print that Christopher struggles with, but we can help him develop them over time. What he has is more important, he is a writer and he knows it. We have to push ourselves, and each other, to see the writers and invite them to the page!

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