Honoring the Process and Product of Writing

For the last seven weeks, I’ve been home recuperating from two surgeries.  The first was planned, to repair a torn ligament on my foot, while the second, my gallbladder removal – Bonus! was not.  What started as a disruption to daily routines grew slightly worse.  Throw some crutches into the mix alongside a rambunctious black lab, the instigator of the foot injury, and you can imagine the challenges.  To pass the time as a respectable literacy coach should, I initially planned to catch up on reading and prepare for upcoming workshops.  But the truth is… I didn’t do much of either.  TelevisionFor whatever reason I struggled to maintain focus on print, but instead fixed my eyes in front of the TV.  Although I wish I could say I watched documentaries, or binge-viewed one of the many epic series, I found myself wandering aimlessly through the channels lingering far too long on E! and HGTV.  So now, along with Project Runway, I’ve added two new favorites – Fixer Upper and Rehab Addict.


The workroom on Project Runway – creativity in progress. Tim Gunn is conferring with a designer.

The basic premise of all three do-it-yourself shows is to create or reimagine something new from scratch; the only difference – the canvas.  Unlike Project Runway, which is a fashion competition, Fixer Upper and Rehab Addict are about restoring/remodeling homes.  In most cases the home designers work within defined spaces, self-manage their time and have free reign to create, whereas the fashion designers are tasked weekly to think, sketch, create, style and present clothing in a particular genre within a regulated time frame.  Hmmm… Week after week they put themselves through this grueling cycle, often facing scathing criticism or worse, elimination. Sometimes they take risks, which pay off, and other times they play it safe, afraid to honor their authentic point of view.  And always, self-doubt is on the sidelines, waiting to creep in to expose a vulnerability.  Sound familiar?

Nowhere is this more apparent than in writing and in the teaching of writing.  Regardless of age or ability, all writers experience anxiety from time to time when faced with a blank page.  Sometimes the ideas and words flow easily, while other times they don’t.  Most adults can work through the struggle, or at least find a diversion – like organizing the spice cabinet, or the sock drawer, or the linen closet, until the crisis is averted.  Unfortunately, our youngest writers don’t always have that freedom, especially given the current environment of testing and evaluation where the lines between process and product can easily become blurred leading teachers to stress over the priority.

As is commonly known, the writing process was revered and defined by the work of Donald Graves, who discovered that children follow similar routines as adults do in the cycle of writing.  Careful not to name it as a sequential order of events, Graves said, “When a person writes, so many components go into action simultaneously that words fail to portray the real picture.”  Translation:  The writing process is not linear.  Writers, like other artists, dip in and out of process elements making it far more fluid.  WritingGraphicThis work was shared and extended by Lucy Calkins in her seminal work, The Art of Teaching Writing, where teachers were urged to “shift attention from product and surface features, to an equal concern with process and meaning.”  This belief ultimately became the crux of the writing workshop philosophy, researched and refined by members of the Teachers College Writing Project; a movement founded by educators, writers, and poets interested in studying their craft, and honoring its importance in the elementary classroom.

Over the past few years, the structure of writing workshop has changed.  Rather than spending an extended amount of time developing a single piece of writing, students are taken through bends or scaffolds to practice and develop several pieces of writing.  The purpose of this change is twofold: (1) to develop stronger writing skills alongside genre knowledge, and (2) to emulate the real world where on-demand writing is often expected. This ensures that students get more practice cycling through the process, so that the writing itself becomes more automatic.  Although it is reasonable and educationally sound to implement writing instruction in this way, it has changed the culture and tone of workshop.  Instead of the contented buzz of children proudly tending to their authored pieces, workshop can feel a bit more frenetic with children racing to complete a task.  The result: children may not be spending enough time developing their revision skills.  The ability to produce writing automatically is critical especially as students move through middle school and beyond when responding to content-driven inquiry, but equally important, and not to be forgotten, is the capacity and desire to create and develop quality writing.  Even given the best intentions, our teachers are under so much pressure to push product over process, especially when end-of-year standards are expected in a mid-year state assessment.

So, what can we do?  How do we strike that balance between product and process in our coaching and writing instruction?  How do we honor the creative art of writing alongside its academic demands?  With the artist Matisse in mind, here are my thoughts:


  • Define the differences for our students. Creative people are curious.  Our students want to understand the expectations regardless of the task, and it’s our job to make it clear to them.  There will be times when they’ll need to write toward a short term goal, and other times when it’s appropriate to linger in the process and develop a piece of writing.  It always comes down to audience and purpose.  Who is going read it? and What is the expectation? Being clear on those two points is the key to both planning and crafting the writing.
  • Plan time for both types of writing. Creative people are flexible, persistent and independent. Our students need the opportunity to practice writing in both ways, but it’s up to us to provide that space in our curriculum and classrooms.  One way to achieve this is through following the process shared in the Teachers College units, where the bends provide scaffolds to support parts of both product and process writing.  Appropriate planning and timely feedback are key; both need to be fully addressed.  Another way is to move through the objectives of the unit four days a week, while setting aside one day for independent writing, or any other plan that honors time for choice and elaboration.  This would provide an opportunity for our students to work on a self-selected piece of writing within any genre, in order to develop stronger revision skills.
  • Celebrate often.  Creative people have a tremendous spirit of adventure and love of play.  If we want to honor both product and process, then we need to celebrate both.  A celebration doesn’t need to be a publishing party, nor does it require all the bells and whistles.  Although celebrating our end goal accomplishments is certainly powerful, honoring achievements along the way holds equal weight.  When we can open our notebooks and share our “ideas in process” to a supportive audience, we are learning to trust one another, which naturally aids in creating a community of writers.  A community where all members mutually become teachers and coaches.

The on-demand tasks required by the Project Runway contestants do not necessarily yield the best results, but week to week the designers find their stride and learn more efficient ways to create their art.  This practice hopefully leads them to the ultimate goal of presenting a collection at New York’s Fashion Week.  A collection which represents a body of work they’ve been planning for a while in their hearts, minds and sketchbooks.  A collection they’ve had months to create with skills they’ve learned along the way from experience, practice, and their community.  A collection that represents a culmination of craft, artistry and form.  It’s painful to watch a designer or writer struggle when they’re stuck, and it’s equally challenging to expect high creativity against a time clock.  But, regardless of purpose, it’s comforting to remember that inspiration often follows a commitment to practice.

Believe in the Power of One Little Word

Last Saturday, I joined my niece and sister-in-law to shop for my niece’s wedding gown.    To say it was a special day would be an understatement.  As Kristin’s doting aunt, her favorite she assures me, and a closet fan of everything bridal (as well as Project Runway, What Not to Wear, Fashion Police), I was thrilled to participate and add drama to “saying yes to the dress!”  wedding pinkIt was magical; the possibilities were endless… so many styles, so many fabrics, so many shades of white (no grey, keep it clean people).  Every gown, gorgeous…Every moment, emotional…All leading up to the tearful final choice.  Kidding aside, sharing in the start of Kristin’s wedding journey, filled me with hope and fueled me to finally initiate my own beginning.

After procrastinating for six months, I am ready to launch my blog.  Although it’s a bit intimidating – actually scares me to death to publicly share my thoughs, I know it’s necessary in order to be considered an authentic writing teacher.  Rather than create lofty goals, (after all there’s a wedding to plan) I’ve decided to use the forum of the One Little Word community as a means to stay on track and focus my posts.  According to Ali Edwards, the originator of this brilliant idea, “One Little Word is about pinpointing one guiding principle and then walking with that word throughout the year.”

Long before I learned about the OLW practice, my word, believe, actually found me.  It was just one of those coincidences that started with an unusual autocorrect on my phone.  In short, here’s what happened.  While I was composing an email one afternoon back in October, the word @believe popped up out of nowhere; I wasn’t attempting to spell a word anywhere near believe.  That incident was followed by an immediate chain of events, which concluded with a call into a local radio station, not for concert tickets I’m afraid, but more importantly, for hearing a profound message.  As often happens in life, assistance appears from unlikely sources often in the guise of comforting words.  Believe has followed me ever since, paving the way for this process and blog launch.

Following suggested prompts by Ali, I began my reflection by defining the word believe and finding quotes to support my interpretation.  In my search I came across this simple definition.  pack-of-4-definition-of-believe-wall-plaques-11I really like when information comes in threes, especially since I plan on focusing this practice in my personal, professional and spiritual life.  Reflecting further on my word, I explored the question, “What do I want to invite into my life?”  Although initially my list ran off the page (blame it on hopeless optimism coupled with lingering wedding bliss), I managed to reduce and sum it up in the following statements:

  • To express my personal beliefs authentically and creatively
  • To clarify and communicate my professional beliefs
  • To strengthen my spiritual beliefs by further exploring my faith

In reflecting on my personal goals, I’m guilty like many educators, in putting my work life ahead of my home life.  However, when work is a calling or vocation like the teaching profession, the lines can become blurred.  On one hand, I am fortunate to be immersed in the literate life, which is both creative and authentic.  On the other it can become all-consuming, to the point where one can easily forget personal pleasures that bring joy.  My shopping excursion on Saturday was a reminder to me on the importance of family and authentic relationships.  Since my daughter Dana will be Kristin’s maid of honor (sister cousins), this wedding will truly be a family affair, and naturally provide moments to enrich my life and indulge my creativity.  Likewise, this blog will also serve as a means for authentic expression, as I plan on melding posts driven by both professional and personal interests.

Professionally, I am quite content, yet never want to become complacent.  Switching careers back in 2002, was a huge decision, but one I’ve never regretted.  After teaching 5th grade and 7th grade, I stepped into a newly created role in my district as the K-5 Balanced Literacy Coordinator, aka the literacy coach.  Although I love assisting teachers with literacy initiatives, I miss the classroom, a sentiment shared by many coaches, including Melanie Levy, a coach who recently returned to the classroom – her post is a must-read.  Beyond the void of student/teacher relationships, a priceless gift, I also miss having a forum to put my new thinking into practice.  Therefore, in order to preserve an honest perspective on classroom practices, I need to be careful not to impose my beliefs onto others.  After all, elementary teachers are charged with implementing every single subject, a challenging feat to say the least.  And although literacy is an all day event, it should enhance rather than consume classroom practices, especially when it comes to assessment.

From a spiritual perspective, exploring my faith has been a lifelong process.  Raised in an Irish/Italian household, parochial school was a standard; better to have the nuns deal with the messy work of discipline, especially with the Tafuni children.  Despite my rebellious nature, and weekly visits to the principal, where, by the way, I marched past my mother who was the school secretary, (I know), St. James School did provide me with a moral compass and code of behavior.  It also left me with many unanswered questions.  This year I will continue to study with my prayer group, as an active member of the ultimate book club.  Where else can you find mysterious, inspirational, and controversial stories?  I started this endeavor with my cousin Judy, who like the rest of us, is really struggling with the concept of fate versus free will.  The best argument she posed to date is that Judas was set up.  According to Judy, if God has a plan for all of us, and knows the outcome before we do, then how did poor Judas ever have a choice?  You can only imagine the discussions when so much of what we are supposed to believe relies on faith!

Believe StoneIn truth, just like wedding vows, it’s simply not enough to have beliefs; it’s far more challenging to act on those beliefs and put them into practice.  Believe is a powerful verb.  On this year-long journey, I am hoping this word will steer my course, aiding me to discern my priorities, speak my truth, and take action accordingly.

Special thanks to close friends and colleagues, Lisa Kruse, Jonathan Olsen, Danielle Soldivieri, and Jennifer Serravallo, for helping me to develop and focus this blog; your honesty and encouragement was/is greatly appreciated.  Thank you also to Amy Ludwig VanDerwater, aka The Poem Farm, for leading a group of educators last summer in her workshop, Teacher as Writer, Writer as Teacher.  The guided practice you provided assisted my writing practice long after the workshop ended.  And to Colleen Cruz and Mary Ehrenworth, my go-to writing teachers @TCRWP summer institutes, whose leadership has informed the whole of my classroom instruction on the teaching of writing.  Finally, a shout out to Michelle Haseltine, whose post on OneGratefulTeacher, led me to discover the gift of One Little Word.