Education, learning, Literacy, writing

What It Means to “Write”–and What We Teach Students

Here’s a quick exercise for you.

Take a few minutes to write, sketch, doodle, or jot your answer to the question, “What does it mean to write?” Think about what we mean–what we really mean–when we refer to this act of writing.

Next, take a moment to jot down the writing units you teach, have taught in the past, or anticipate teaching in the future.

Now compare the two. Do your lists/brainstorms/jots match up?

I’ll wait.


When I asked my colleagues to engage in this activity during the NH Literacy Institutes course I taught this summer, I had an idea–a hunch, if you will–about what would happen. I anticipated that there would be some dissonance between the words and phrases that would emerge when we asked ourselves what it means to write and the words and phrases we used to describe the writing units we teach.

Here is a sampling of what we wrote in answer to the first question:

Writing is…

  • discovery
  • therapeutic–“life writing”
  • thinking
  • expressing & exploring
  • secret
  • letters to Nana
  • messy; never finished
  • exposing oneself
  • making personal connections
  • decision-making

Without taking time to reflect, I then asked my colleagues to share the units they teach, have taught in the past, or plan to teach their student writers. This is what was shared:

DAY 1 Writing, Redefined UNHLit 2017

The units we highlighted were the ones we thought best matched the concepts and ideas we listed when brainstorming what it means to write. But without even taking time to really process the two lists, what my colleagues and I quickly noticed was this: the way we teach students to write frequently does not match our collective understandings about what writing “is.” Instead of teaching students about composition as a vehicle for decision-making, for expressing ideas, and/or for thinking through difficult concepts, we overwhelmingly teach writing as a means to an end: as a way to pump out products–and not just products, but products that teachers and/or programs mandate that our students produce.

This is not a new realization, of course. In his seminal essay “Teach Writing As a Process Not Product,” Donald Murray mourns the lack of “live writing” in classrooms and likens our collective focus on writing products to engaging in “autopsying” the so-called literature our students produce–which is, of course, how most of us were (and continue to be) taught to teach writing. In her exquisite book The Journey Is Everything: Teaching Essays That Students Want to Write for People Who Want to Read Them (2016), Katherine Bomer pushes educators to teach students to essay (i.e., to use essay writing as a means for exploring ideas and discovering their voice as writers) rather than to simply write essays. And in her widely shared July 2016 English Journal piece “Slay the Monster! Replacing Form-First Pedagogy with Effective Writing Instruction,” author/educator Kathleen Dudden Rowlands urges teachers specifically to abandon form-first instruction (specifically, teaching the dreaded five-paragraph essay) in favor of teaching students to write by examining purposes for writing, writing craft, and writing for different audiences. (She does also suggest teaching writing via genre study, which has a great deal of value but can often lead us to fall into the same product-driven traps. In addition, there is much confusion–including in Rowlands’ piece– around writing genres versus writing forms versus writing modalities versus writing text types.)

Even in some of the most beloved pre-published writing programs or units of study that claim to focus less on product-driven writing and more on authentic reasons for writing (e.g., to share our opinions about something), the ways teachers are encouraged to assess and evaluate students’ compositions–e.g., through accompanying pre-created rubrics–almost always implicitly favor a particular product or form of writing over the processes that students have used and/or the compositional decisions they’ve made throughout the unit.

Why is this an issue?

So what

It’s an issue because when you were asked to jot, sketch, or write about what it means to write, you likely had many of the same responses that my colleagues and I did when we thought about the same question this past summer. It’s an issue because when the stories we tell students about writing through product-focused practices or units of study instead of through units that allow them to make important compositional decisions around how to share their thinking about something, how to engage an audience, or how to explore an idea or concept that is important to them, we are oftentimes presenting an inauthentic narrative about what writing “is.”

I’m not advocating that we ditch products entirely. (OBVI.) Rather, as is my norm, I am suggesting that we do what we can within the constraints of our curricula, our district mandates, and/or our deeply embedded notions about how to teach writing to balance the scales a little. Let’s find pockets of time when we might design a mini-unit (before or after a major school break, perhaps?) around, say, “writing as thinking” and help students use writing as a way to think through complex ideas without an expectation that they will all, in the end, produce a similar piece of writing (or even a finished piece of writing, for that matter). Or instead of designing a “poetry writing” unit, let’s instead use an inquiry lens to explore why writers might choose to write poetry instead of writing, say, a comic or essay. What might different forms and/or genres of poetry offer us as writers that other forms of writing cannot? How might our decisions around form, genre, and modality affect our chosen audience(s) or our purpose for writing?

Let’s brainstorm, together, ways to ensure that our ideas around “what it means to write” more consistently match up with the opportunities we offer our student writers to compose–opportunies that would be much more likely to sustain and engage them outside of school as well.

What ideas do you have to manage this within your own classroom? Please share your ideas below, or find me on Voxer (shawnacoppola) so we can continue to grow our thinking around this important work.


Like what you’ve read here? Check out my debut book from Stenhouse Publishers, Renew! Become a Better–and More Authentic–Writing Teacher, which you can preview in its entirety here. I am donating 50% of my royalties for the first year of publication to 826 National, a wonderful organization that provides opportunities for children who live in traditionally underserved populations to explore their creativity and improve their writing skills.  

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