I believe that students become avid readers and engaged writers when they assume responsibility for becoming authors. When students see the fruit of their labor and the response from readers, a permanent reading/writing connection is made that will transform the way they view and appreciate language and literature.
Wendy Ramirez, a second-grade teacher who has incorporated a publishing cycle into her writer’s workshop, explains why she’s a believer in the power of publishing: “Overall, I feel publishing students’ work and celebrating their achievement has given them a sense of pride and ownership of their academic work that they had not realized was possible beforehand. I learned how important publishing can be to students’ confidence and sense of authorship. I believe publishing should be a priority in all classrooms.” (2007)
Publishing also emphasizes that writing is a social process—an exchange of ideas between authors and readers, not just a performance for the teachers. Having feedback from readers provides motivation for writing and emphasizes higher-level critical thinking, creativity, and organization. Classroom publishing centers are becoming more prominent as teachers strive to give students authentic purpose for writing and to allow their work to be shared with others beyond classroom boundaries.
Nancie Atwell, winner of the Global Teacher Prize and writing teacher extraordinaire, says of classroom publication: “A sense of audience—the knowledge that someone will read what they have written—is crucial to young writers. Kids write with purpose and passion when they know that people they care about reaching will read what they have to say. More importantly, through using writing to reach out to the world, students learn what writing is good for. . . . It’s a daily occasion for students to discover why writing matters in their lives and in others’ and what it can do for them and the world.”
In 2006, Dana Davidson, a Young Adult novelist who also happened to be a friend and an AP English teacher in Detroit, Michigan (a Newsweek/WDIV-TV Outstanding Teacher Awardee, in fact), asked if I would consider facilitating a publishing workshop for her high school seniors. Over the course of the school year, her students had written fiction, essays, article, axioms, and poems, and she wanted to reward them with a book. There was one hitch, however. She wanted me to teach the students so that they could do the actual publishing work themselves. That, and she only had one day for all of this to occur. Naturally, always one to embrace a challenge, I said “yes,” and made my way to the Great Lakes state.
There were 35 students in each of Dana’s five classes, which began at 7:30 am and concluded at 4:30 pm. Like Bobby McFerrin leading a choir of singers in a completely improvisational musical experience, for those nine hours we created powerful melodies, rhythms, and textures. One class proofread the text, another created a title and designed a cover. In effect, each group of students became a different department in our makeshift publishing company. By the end of the day, our performance, birthed out of a literal celebration of spontaneity, was complete. Two weeks later, copies of their paperback book, Unspoken, were delivered to the school, and a book party was held where students presented poems from the book to an excited audience of teachers, parents, friends, and educators. They autographed copies. And they became proud authors.
I began offering this workshop to other schools, and I called it Book-in-a-Day (for obvious reasons). Certainly, the goal was for the students to publish a book, but the more I led the workshop, the more I realized that student participants were finding their voice, were uncovering and expressing the woes and wonders of their world, were building self-confidence and strengthening their engagement with literacy. Each workshop became a community of empowered voices. We laughed. We cried. We connected with literature in vital, electric, and life-giving ways.
Want to transform your student’s lives? Do the write thing and bring publishing, whether digital or print, into the classroom.
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Kwame Alexander will be speaking on how to engage students in the “writerly” life at the 25th annual Model Schools Conference, June 25–28, in Nashville.