Dear Bob Kerrey: Six Middleschoolers Tell How They Became Writers

Article excerpt

Last spring, our seventh and eighth grade writing class was intrigued by an article in the New York Times (Lewin, 2003) that reported about a five-year campaign to improve the teaching of writing in U.S. schools, to be led by former Senator Bob Kerrey, president of the New School University.

As students at the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), a K-8 school where we think writing is taught well, we realized we may have taken for granted an important part of our academic and personal lives: our daily writing workshops. We also recognized that we have expertise to share that might prove valuable to the campaign.

The six of us, with input from our classmates, volunteered to craft this open letter about our experience as writers at CTL and what we think it means for students in other schools. Since we already act and see ourselves as writers, the question we tried to answer together was why do we act and see ourselves this way: How did the writing instruction we've received help us become writers? What did our teachers do that worked for us?

We met, talked, and made pages of notes about the conditions for teaching and learning writing in our classroom and the specific things our teacher, Nancie Atwell, does to help us. We asked our classmates for their ideas and for stories about their experiences as writers, both here at CTL and at other schools they've attended, to help illustrate the ideas.

In surveying these data, we found nine key elements-conditions we think have to be present if students are going to be motivated as writers and produce effective writing. By effective writing, we mean essays, reviews, memoirs, stories, letters, and poems that are literary, purposeful, free of language errors, and meaningful to both a writer and his or her readers. We know this is a tall order, but anything less is a writing exercise. When it comes to writing, kids want and deserve the real thing.

Writing as a Process

by Annie Kass

"What if you took out the entire idea that the mom wants your main character to look good so the mom will look good, too? This poor girl already has enough problems in her life," my English teacher, Nancie Atwell, comments during a meeting with me about the first draft of my short story.

This conference-a one-on-one conversation about a student's writing-is just one of the many steps in our writing process at CTL. Later, after helping me with the bigger problems of plot and character development in my short story, Nancie will show me the punctuation errors that she found and corrected. Finally, with a positive comment to encourage me, she'll send me off to make final editorial changes to my piece.

This view and use of the writing process is much different from writing instruction at other schools. At other places the goal might be to produce an assigned genre, usually a book report or an essay, under a tight deadline and get everything right in the first draft. We, on the other hand, choose our own topics and genres, work at our own pace, and experiment with multiple drafts before revising, editing, proofreading, and sending our writing off into the world.

In general, this is how my writing process works. After deciding on a topic and genre, I often begin by creating a plan, especially with my longer or more involved prose pieces. On a planning sheet I jot down ideas-anything and everything that might help me while drafting. For instance, for this essay, I created two packed pages of notes about the writing process, a timeline of what I would say when, and other information I might like to include. I didn't use everything on my planning sheets, but anything I could use was there. At this point I might draft alternative leads, or just plunge into the piece.

As I write, at any time I may take the draft I'm working on and put it aside to address the same topic, but from a different angle: I can change the format, lead, verb tense, or point of view. …