Becoming a Writer

I am a long-term English language learner with a short, sporadic history of writing success. For the better part of my formative years, my writing focused on answering prompts, short answers, and the dreaded four-page essay. These activities did not make me feel like a writer.

The writing I did growing up was rushed, haphazard, and incoherent. As a teenager, I was unable to express to my teachers that I had no real opportunities to write about what I was wondering or my burning questions of the day. This is a fact, not an indictment of them. I recall that one of my high school teachers did attempt to develop my writing skills, but by then my writing self-confidence had been diminished by the endless focus on penmanship, spelling, and grammatical errors. My teachers addressed my writing format, not my writing craft. They were not mediating my personal needs. When I did write, my writing was bland, citation-friendly, and I did little to develop my thoughts or ideas about the topic.

My first semester at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in ENG 111 was the first time I experienced writing success. My freshman prof assigned the typical essays, but also gave us  latitude to infuse our personal ideas about the topic—he asked us to think critically and back up our claims. This experience proved to be the confidence boost I needed; at the end of the semester, I felt like an accomplished writer.

As a graduate student I was lucky to meet an instructor who ignited my passion to write. She simply asked us to think and write about what we wanted to learn from our students. I did not stop writing for one and half years.

As a doctoral student I was invited to attend a summer institute by The North Star of Texas Writing Project, a local affiliate of the National Writing Project (NWP). During six weeks I was invited to write about a research topic, “our burning question,” and about our lives. This experience developed our skills as writers and as teachers of writing. We wrote about ourselves, our interests, our needs, our wants, our questions, and our findings. We wrote poems, personal narratives, research articles and other genres. We cried, we laughed, we ate, and we became a cohort of learners of writing, who used writing as a tool for making meaning about ourselves and our interests, not simply as a tool for assessing “what we had learned” about topics that had been assigned to us by others. Our lead faculty, Carol Wickstrom and Leslie Patterson, respected and treated us as equals. They really listened to our needs, and in response, we became a community.

Today, I prepare teacher candidates to meet the needs of English learners. I am trying to model what was demonstrated to me most recently by Dr. Wickstrom and Dr. Patterson. I invite my pre-service teachers to take this same approach with their future students.

If you are a teacher, I ask that you think of all your students as successful writers and allow them to write for their own reasons. If you are an administrator, I ask that you provide teachers the latitude to go beyond the prescriptive assessment workbooks that are not meaning making for students. And if you are a student, I encourage you to write what you are passionate about. I promise you will not stop.

Most Recent: November 7, 2012
  • File Type: Text
  • Selected Literacy Topics: Writing
  • crevelle

    endless focus on penmanship, spelling, and grammatical errors

    Juan -- When you talk about the "endless focus on penmanship, spelling, and grammatical errors," I'm reminded that so much of our focus in our writing classes is on defining success and failure in quantitative terms. Mistakes can be counted and included into a formula. The grades produced leave little room for disagreement. Real writing exists on an entirely different plane. When we looked at the Analytical Writing Continuum, we came to understand the real qualities of great writing were based in the passion and images created by the author for his/her audience. Grammar counted, but it was clearly not the focus of the successful pieces as many of those authors broke the rules if they were barriers to their ideas. I love to teach writing because it's amazing to turn loose writers who have had the types of experiences you describe. It's wonderful to see joy and pride in writers that were once afraid of their own words. - Carol R.