Spiral lined paper with the heading, Write like you mean it. A Hand is poised to write on the page. Also Pushing The Edge with Greg Curran logo

Write Like You Really Mean It

It happens to all of us, I think. We become so focused on teaching the mechanics of writing, on ticking off each writing criterion in the marking guide that we lose track of who our students are – and what matters to them – in relation to our writing topics. And our students’ writing can all start to appear the same, like assembly line fodder. 

When I write though, I want to have a positive impact. I want to affect people, to make them think, feel, wonder and react. Sadly these emotionally intelligent aspects were missing from my students’ writing and I wanted to redress this. 

Here’s how we went about it. 

Exposure to Powerful Texts

Through our reading program, I started to expose students to Australian song texts that have a long lasting cultural legacy in respect to the histories of Indigenous Australians (linked into our HASS Curriculum). I hoped that these songs would have an impact on students and their writing. And they did as I saw over and over again in their powerful, passionate responses to the songs.  

There were several critical components critical to the success of this initiative, taking place across the span of a teaching year. 

  • A recognition of the need to be respectful in our responses to the songs and each other – given the subject matter of the songs, and how the issues explored have affected people and their communities over time;
  • Culturally informed teaching around the historical-social-political contexts of the events in the songs;
  • Regular opportunities to sensitively discuss our thoughts, feelings and responses;
  • A recognition and appreciation of the value of differences amongst us, and in our responses. 

Exposure to Impact Feedback

Over the course of the year, the line of students wanting to share their writing with me snaked around the classroom, grew bigger and bigger. Seeking to avoid these long queues, I encouraged my students to share with each other and give feedback to each other. But they still wanted one on one feedback time with me. And not just any old feedback. I came to see that it was the nature of my feedback that was the draw-card for my students.

I told them or showed them how their writing affected me:

  • how it got me thinking or wondering (and what it got me thinking about);
  • how it made me feel emotional. Key here: they could see the impact on my face and in my disposition (“Are you crying Mr Curran?”);
  • how it impressed me – with the guts and courage they had shown to express powerful ideas;
  • how it filled me with hope for the future, as I imagined them as people wanting to make a difference in their communities.

Over and over again I said: – write like it means something to youwrite for a positive impact so that people think, feel, and wonder. And they did – lining up to show me their writing and to see and hear how it affected me.

This interaction meant something to my students. It never seemed to grow old or boring. And my students kept writing with an investment, and sense of justice, empathy, and cultural respect like I had not seen before. It was fire, deeply felt and considered.

Being seen as mature, thinking students

Sometimes I think we don’t give our students enough credit for being capable of writing thoughtful, detailed responses, or able to contribute to sensitive discussions about the issues of our times, or in our case specific historical events of our country. This doesn’t just happen, in my experience, of its own accord. It must be taught and supported across the school year.

Building trust is crucial especially when students are sharing their opinions and feelings. Whenever we were responding to texts I would set the conditions for engagement – in terms of sensitive, respectful listening and responding. Providing reasons for these conditions in terms of the content and issues explored in the song was important here.

We had to learn what sensitive, respectful listening and responding looked and sounded like across the year. We had to be okay with building on ideas that were partial given the initial limited background knowledge of some students.

Too often as teachers we focus on what’s wrong or needs fixing in students’ writing. I had to be mindful of this every time a student brought their writing to me. I wanted this engagement to be positive and encouraging so I looked for the seed/s of ideas that with nurturing and support could be developed into something more substantial. I wanted my students to know that they could do it. And I wanted them to willingly race back to their desks to continue writing. 

Students were often greatly affected by the texts we were exploring. Consequently their initial responses were filled with extreme language, generalisations and stereotyping. Over time we learnt the value of moderating our language or phrasing, or being more subtle. We found vocabulary that more effectively conveyed our sentiments. 

Supporting Students to Write Passionately

As previously discussed, providing powerful texts to engage with was crucial. Also, in line with our English curriculum, supporting students to write detailed, considered responses was key.

Here I encouraged and supported students to:

  • explain their ideas through giving further details and reasons;
  • make links to the song lyrics;
  • unpack the meaning of those lyrics, then link them back to the argument or main idea.  

No matter the reading skill we were learning, students would write responses using versions of this structure.

As we discussed the main ideas of texts for example, I would encourage and support them to explain in detail, to make connections, and to unpack lyrics. The next day students would work independently finishing their responses to the text. As I scanned the class, while teaching my reading group, they would proudly hold their writing up to me, showing how much they had written. 

Using Question Charts that encourage the asking of higher order questions also supported the development of impactful writing in my classroom. I was consistently impressed at the thoughtful questions students asked about the texts we explored. They were questions that:

  • demanded answers;
  • got to the heart of students’ thoughts and feelings about the issues in the texts;
  • delved in the motives of people;
  • wondered how people could live with or deal with specific events or issues in the texts; 
  • explored ongoing themes in Australian history.

And when we asked questions of this calibre, we opened the door to some powerfully, moving writing.