They have a story

Empowering student voice

Just this week we finished up one of my favorite units of the school year. The Library of Congress sponsors a national letter writing contest where students spend time considering books that have had a major influence on them, and then write to the authors of those very books.

Even that stands to show how great a unit it is.

It’s one of my favorites for so many reasons. We learn to connect with people across the world and across the classroom. We take time to reflect on our reading lives. We share our stories with our classmates, authors, and the world.

We talk a lot about how this is their chance to share their story. The one only they can tell. I’m intentional about empowering them to find their voice, and be proud of their experiences. Classroom culture plays a big factor in this unit. Well, it does in all units, but you can really feel it in this one. It’s palpable. You can feel it in the weighted silences as students read one another’s writing, as they sit to compose the next piece of their story.

At the start of the letter writing process, right after choosing a book we have deeply connected with, my students write the opening and closing of their letters. I don’t structure or mandate anything here—I let them write their story as they see fit. Once our drafts our complete, we sit in a circle and read the bookends of our stories to our peers.*

The vulnerability I ask from them here is frightening. But it is oh, so powerful.

Their experiences are authentic and raw and real. Often, they are awe-inspiring. In our small town after only 11 years, they’ve witnessed more than they let on in a given day. And they are bravely, openly sharing it with their classmates. Because they were given the platform, the opportunity, to do so.

This is usually the unit where my students start to see that writing can be fun. That it can be powerful. That they can use it to share with the world who they are. I affectionately tell others that this unit is usually the one where I connect with students who I haven’t yet connected with, and where I form stronger bonds with those I already have. We share our stories together. We learn from one another. We draw connections between our lives, share in the joy and sadness of each unique experience. My kids form bonds in this moment that I know they feel; I know because I feel them, too.

Writing is a compelling medium. By sixth grade, the magic of it has worn off because of countless graphic organizers, scaffolding supports, requirements, pre-selected topics, and red pen. Some of this is a tragic consequence of the strict writing curricula we are beholden to. Some is our discomfort or lack of readiness to teach something so challenging.

While I admit that it is difficult to let go, I’ll also say this: Some of the best writing my students do all year is in this letter. The emotion behind the words is only one part of it; they put care behind each sentence, thought into what connections they made to the book, and focus on how to best tell their story. In other words, they learn to vary sentence structure for interest, use textual evidence to support their reflection, and organize their paragraphs for purpose and clarity.

Sound like Common Core standards?

L.6.3, W.6.9, & W.6.4.

Ownership changes the way students view writing. The ability to write about how writing has influenced their lives offers an opportunity to my kids. They have the chance here to tell a story that no one else is able to, because it is uniquely, perfectly theirs.

And instead of reading 92 calculated, formulated responses that were written to meet the intended learning objectives, I get to hear my kids exactly as they wanted to be heard. And that moves me. Every. Single. Time.

*I never mandate a student to share a story they are uncomfortable telling. I remind them that their letter will be sent in to a competition, if they choose to send it. The choice is theirs, because it is their story.

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