"Receiving" Student Writing: Why Does It Matter?

When a student walks up to you with a piece of writing, what is the first thing you think about?  How we receive students' writing affects everything in our writing classrooms.

Is the notion of receiving students' writing different than responding to students' writing?  I believe it is.  It comes before we respond.  It's the attitude we take when we approach a piece of writing from a student.  It's the aura around our reception.  Do we receive writing with curiosity, with genuine interest, and care?  Do we approach the piece with an eagerness to discover the ideas the student is trying to convey?  Or do we receive writing as a means to an end focused on questions like: does this complete the school assignment?  Is the standard met?  Would this writing pass the end-of-year, on-demand, high-stakes test?  Obviously, our mindset as we receive writing from students makes a big difference in the climate of the classroom, the way we respond, the instruction we offer, and the very writing opportunities we afford our students. 

When teachers receive student writing with genuine interest in their content, their voice, and their ideas... everything changes.  The climate of the classroom is open and inviting.  The conversations center around ideas, concepts, building knowledge together, extending knowledge, taking ideas in unique directions, figuring out the "so whats," and finding and telling our own stories.  Responding flows naturally, like a conversation, back and forth about what the student is saying, or trying to say.  How it is said certainly must be addressed, but the content is received first.  The instruction we offer focuses on meaning making, using writing as a tool to that end across genres, and the opportunities we afford our writers are much broader than if we receive writing only through a standards-based or passing-the-test-based lens.  With those lenses, our focus narrows and our talk and instruction leans toward the elements of writing, the structures, the conventions, the 'right way.'  As a K-6 literacy coach, the requests I receive from teachers are primarily for academic writing, with a heavy dose of effective prompt analysis, citing evidence, elaborating on that evidence, inclusion of all the necessary elements of the genre, and structure and organization (opinion/argumentation and informational only please, after all, narrative isn't on the test).* Yes, all of this certainly does matter.  But, when we limit writers only to these opportunities for growth, the way we receive their writing tends to be limited, as well.  Being college and career ready doesn't have to mean writing to a formula and having one's writing received only in light of that formula.  Yet, I see and hear this time and time again.  There may be thoughts inside the piece that are nuggets of greatness, but we have to be open to receiving them.  Widen the lens.  Listen deeply.  Receive the writer and the content before anything else.  

*Do I believe in standards-based instruction like this?  Yes, I do.  In fact, I recently wrote a K-2 book about integrating standards-based reading and writing instruction that is purposeful and joyful.  It's pretty easy to genuinely receive student writing that is purposeful and joyful and, with a little ingenuity, we can integrate the academic standards right in! (See a post about this here.) Yet another book I wrote this year gets at standards through the use of student writing as mentor texts for teaching (opinion, informational, narrative, and other forms of writing.  See a post on this here or here and a short video here).  But, I believe standard-based instruction must take place within a balanced approach to writing...read on for more.

The notion of balance in the opportunities we give writers is critical.  If we view the way we receive student writing as important, if we are eager to truly discover their unique ideas, understandings, and stories, our writing communities are places where a plethora of writing types are studied and tried on.  Who knows what will fit right now for this or that student?  And, who knows what will be discovered because we had the sensibility to try a wide range of opportunities rather than working from a narrow focus.

Think of our youngest writers.  Obviously, their work will be an approximation of the conventional.  If we approach a youngster thinking, "This child has something to say, and I want to hear it," our response to the piece, in whatever form it appears on the page, will be very different than if we are thinking something like, "I've got to move my writers forward and this student is really behind."  Imagine the difference in the response the same child would receive based on these two ways of receiving the writing.  How do you think the responding that ensues affects that child's writing identity and motivation?  Yes, we definitely do need to move writers forward and we have to study their work carefully to see what it is they are doing well, what they need to work on, and think deeply about what might be the best next possible steps to help the individual or group of individuals move ahead.  But, before all that, the writer, the little human, the person, comes first.  Before all that, the thoughts this writer has must be honored, acknowledged, and given an equal amount of deep attention.  The writing must be received in a thoughtful, genuine way.

Still today, in some classrooms, kindergartners don't have opportunities to write because, "they're not ready."  This is a very old notion of writing and writing development since writing is, at its core, simply a form of communication. If I have a different mindset and I receive students' writing just like I receive their speech, with interest in their ideas, with joy and curiosity, then I respond in kind and we write from day one. 


I'd love to hear your thoughts about "receiving student writing."  I've been kicking these ideas around in my head for quite some time and I still have miles to go to reach clarity.  I hope my thinking inspires your thinking. #happywriting!

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