Thursday, March 26, 2015

Slice #26 of 31: Thoughts on Working With Fragile Writers

For the month of March, I am participating in the Slice of Life Challenge, hosted by the community of writers at Two Writing Teachers. Many of my slices are at my personal blog, Just Write, Melanie, but ones that deal specifically with education appear here. All are welcome to join the slicing party by reading and commenting. People write amazing posts.

Over the past few months, I have been working a lot with some of the more fragile writers in our elementary schools. I have been thinking a lot about best practices in working with those students who "just won't write." I'm sure that many of you know the ones. Here are some of my developing tenets in working with children who don't yet see themselves as writers:
  • Help them see themselves as writers. Listen to their ideas, even if their only way of communicating those ideas is with their spoken language. If you believe that they have a story to tell, then they will begin to believe it also.
  • Give them only one or two teaching points at once. With these writers, especially, it is critical to remember to teach the writer and not the writing. No, their writing will not be perfect. Don't let the perfect get in the way of the good.
  • Ask them what they meant to say or what they would say or want they might want to say. Don't tell them what to say. Let their story be their story. 
  • Recognize that when they create a super complicated story, it is frequently a costume for not knowing how to tell the story. Help them boil down their epic to a beginning, middle, and end. Less is more.
  • Speaking of end, help the fragile writers recognize and get to the end of a piece. Sometimes writing feels like a brambly pathway with lots of twists and turns and not a single trail-marker in sight. Help these writers know their destination. Experienced writers can use their writing in order to discover a story. I have yet to see a fragile writer discover a story by writing and writing and writing. Instead, they get lost and so do we, their teachers, in a complicated story that makes no sense. 
  • Did I already say stick to one teaching point? I'm saying it again. And don't let someone else work with them and give them more. As a writer, I can't integrate a bunch of new ideas and I love writing. Fragile writers don't love writing, and it's easy to overwhelm them. Let them experience and enjoy some mastery. 
  • Do not write on their writing. Don't do it. Have Post-its on hand. Write conference notes. Accept that you might not be able to know exactly what was on that page tomorrow. That's okay. 
  • Make sure that the paper choice matches the writer's capacity. Too many lines are overwhelming. There's nothing like a giant blank paper to freeze every good idea I have. Fragile writers will have more success if they feel like they can fill the lines. Don't give them too many. You will get better writing if you spread it out across pages than if all of the writing is crammed onto one page of more lines than the writer can handle. 
  • Recognize the task avoidance signs. The bathroom need, the erasing obsession, the "I can't find my work in progress" syndrome. If these signs are in place, address them and work together to help.
  • Make the work easier for the time being. Writing requires confidence. We build confidence by creating competence. I promise that if you make it easier for a while, you will be able to make it more complex later. 
This post is longer than I had planned, but took me less time to write than you'd think. Some of these need a lot more elaboration--it may be that this post inspires other posts about specific bullet points. If you didn't get through all of them, here are the ideas, boiled way down:  build confidence, value voice, and balance the need to teach with the capacity to learn. 

Happy Slicing,


  1. This is wonderful Melanie. So many valuable points. I especially like your point about the end of a story. And the advent of an "epic" story. These fragile folks are a great majority of the kiddos I work with. You are a bless to them and to us. Thank you for your wise words. I'm tweeting this on...

  2. I find that building self confidence and not looking for perfection are two really powerful moves when working with reluctant writers. Errors are to be celebrated as they drive our teaching and teach students to take risks.

  3. This is wonderful! There are so many fragile writers...and we want to help them all! Working with only ONE teaching point is so important, and I think it was an excellent choice to mention it twice!!

  4. This is wonderful! There are so many fragile writers...and we want to help them all! Working with only ONE teaching point is so important, and I think it was an excellent choice to mention it twice!!

  5. This is a great list, I will be printing it and sharing it with my teachers. Thanks for your thoughtful words that apply to every age group.

  6. These points are great, Melanie. Working with a reluctant student is one of the most difficult. Overcoming motivation and fear is sometimes a long and arduous process.

  7. There is so much wonderful advice here, Melanie. I'll be sharing your wisdom with my colleagues tomorrow!

  8. Thanks for all of the insights here, Melanie! These are so important to keep in mind!

  9. You have provided much evidence of your thinking around this issue Melanie. A most informative post. When a writer lacks experience or confidence we are charged with changing the pictures in their head regarding writing. They are indeed fragile,(rather than reluctant) and we must be patient in building, or rebuilding belief. An excellent contribution to the cause!

  10. "Make the work easier for the time being. Writing requires confidence. We build confidence by creating competence."
    This is so critical. It's a piece of the puzzle that often gets left out - to the detriment of our students. Great post, Melanie.

  11. These are wonderful tips! I love how the value of writing comes through these tenets. Their story, honor that story.

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