Writing vs. Writing

What is writing? What does that question make you think? Now, grab a scrap of paper, a notebook, or a post-it and jot your definition. Hopefully, it will give this post greater meaning.

As I see it, there are two different ways to define writing. The first definition I think of is the physical task of holding a pen or pencil in our hand and manipulating it in such a way as to create letters and symbols. The second definition that comes to mind is thinking of writing as a form of communication where we represent language with symbols and use those symbols to express our ideas. Take a moment to glance back at your definition that you wrote down. Were you thinking more about the physical process of handwriting? Or were you thinking more about the expression of ideas? For me, I think much more about the expression of ideas than about the physical process. Maybe that’s because most of my writing happens on a device through either typing or dictation. I decided to look to see what others had to say on the topic, and these are a few of the definitions of writing that I found:

  • “Writing refers to the act of creating composed knowledge. Composition takes place across a range of contexts and for a variety of purposes.” – National Council of Teachers of English Position Statement – Understanding and Teaching Writing: Guiding Principles – (2018) accessible here
  • “Support students in writing often, with fluency, about topics they care about, for an audience of other kids, working on kinds of writing they’ve seen other writers attempt.” – Lucy Calkins, Mary Ehrenworth, & Laurie Pessah – Leading Well (2019)
  • “Writing is mind traveling, destination unknown.” – Patrick Sebrenek, Verne Meyer, & Dave Kamper – Writers INC: A Student Handbook for Writing and Learning (1996)

Recently I was having a conversation with a colleague about writing. I thought we were talking about the expression of ideas, but I quickly became aware that this conversation was very much focused on that physical act of holding a pencil and creating letters and symbols. To me, that just isn’t what writing is truly about. Now, I do have to adjust my mindset a little bit – remember, I’m an elementary principal now, but I’ve spent most of my professional life as an educator working in intermediate grades. The physical act of holding a pencil and writing on paper was a given for the vast majority of our intermediate students. But I recognize that for our youngest students, the process of handwriting letters and words is a skill that we need to pay attention to. That said, massive amounts of time devoted to handwriting (that physical process), especially if it leads to less time to practice the expression of ideas, may take away from our goals on writing.

So, what are the goals we have for writing?

Ultimately, when we are talking about writing in schools, the main focus needs to be on getting ideas from our student’s brain into a media that others can then read and respond to. That might include pencil and paper, but it could also include using a device to type our thoughts, or it could even involve using the dictation function on an iPad or computer to “type” our thoughts. (quick aside: A little more than a year ago, I broke my left hand. I am left-handed, so once I had a cast, handwriting was almost impossible, and typing meant finger pecking since my cast didn’t allow my ring and pinky finger to move. I learned how to use dictation on my laptop. It was a game-changer that I even still use at times today since my speaking is even faster than my typing.) “Writing” could even be a verbal telling of a story that has been recorded (think Flipgrid!!!). I still remember in one of my writing classes that our first assignment was to learn a joke to tell to the class. Telling a joke is a form of story telling!

What if we were more concerned with writing as the expression of ideas, and not as the physical process of using a pencil for handwriting? I believe that the best way for our students to get better at something is through the time they spend practicing. What if we allowed our students to use dictation on their devices to take in their ideas? Isn’t the expression of ideas what writing is truly about? When I use dictation, it allows me to see words and punctuation appear on my screen as I speak. Our students will see this happen as well, and some of what they see will be absorbed and then translate into their handwriting. And the fact is, my dictation is never perfect. I always have to go back through for editing and revision purposes. But I can get my ideas out much quicker this way.

I think that part of why this conversation stuck with me is because I do think of myself as a writer now, but if you had asked the elementary school version of me, I would not have said that same. There are times that I wish I could pick up the phone and give Mrs. Samuelson (the saint of a teacher who was both my first-grade teacher and my sixth-grade teacher) a call and tell her “I’m a writer now!”

So, what has changed? When I was in elementary school, I was not very good at the physical process of handwriting. I didn’t like that I had bad handwriting that others couldn’t read. I hated the way that as a left-hander, whether I wrote in pen or pencil, my hand would drag across what I had written, and then the text would become smeared, and my hand would have ink or lead all over it. I didn’t like how slow I was at writing – sometimes my brain would be three sentences in while my hand was still on the first sentence and invariably by the time my hand caught up, some of those thoughts were lost forever. When I was in elementary school, typing and dictation were not an option at all. While I remember a couple of my classrooms having an Apple II with games like Oregon Trail, we didn’t have a computer lab with a word processing program until I was in sixth grade.

That was my school self. But at home, we had a typewriter. I used to sit in my room with that thing and write story after story. Often, I would try to imitate the stories I’d been reading. I went through a Stephen King reading kick, so I started writing my own versions of his stories. Then I got really into mysteries, so I wrote a story about a detective from my hometown. Unfortunately, typewriters are really heavy, and I couldn’t carry it back and forth. My at-home writing didn’t make the journey to school.

With the changes in technology that have happened since my elementary school days, there are so many ways for our students to collect their ideas and then use those collections to actually go through the process of writing. If you have a student who struggles to write but has lots of ideas, allow them to use dictation on their device. Or let them record a voice memo that they can then transcribe (or maybe even have someone else dictate). Or does the expression of ideas have to always be written? A part of our ELA standards here in Indiana includes a Speaking and Listening component. Some kids might be able to express a better story structure in a spoken form. They could do a video recording. Or maybe they could create an audio story like a podcast. The presentation of knowledge and ideas are what we’re really going for here.

What other ideas might you have? What impact might there be for your classroom? Or for student learning? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Also, a few years ago, I wrote a post about the types of writing that we engage students in. In that post, I was comparing the writing of 5 paragraph essays and newspaper articles to the writing of blog posts and copy (see that post here). While it doesn’t tie directly to what this post is about today, I think that reflecting on the types of writing assignments we ask our students to do is still a worthy conversation and point of reflection.

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