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The Right to Write

No matter what a student thinks of their writing ability, we have to show them they all have the right to write. More than that, we have to teach students the value of their words and inspire them to share them. We need to do our part in developing critical thinkers.

If we view education through a social justice lens, we are obligated to teach students how to articulate and publish their thoughts. A social justice approach to education prepares teachers, leaders, and scholars to foster educational environments that are socially just, diverse, inclusive, and equitable.

We can show students the importance of their individual voices by giving students autonomy and diversity.


Integrating students identities

Students enter the classroom with a whole life of their own. They do not strip their identity when taking off their coats. Past experiences and future aspirations follow them to their desk and show up in everything they write, or, as NCTE puts it, “writers’ cultures and languages influence their writing.” Because writing is interwoven with identity, it’s crucial that writers take ownership of their writing– this allows autonomy to be established in the classroom.

By allowing their persona to shine through their work, students will be writing in a way that is unique to them; that is the only way to produce authentic writing. Authentic writing will teach students how to convey their ideas across audiences, which is crucial to success after school.

NCTE also states, “everything they have experienced, who they are, where they have been, and what they have done impacts their writing practices, literacies, and language attitudes.” By integrating the life of the student inside and outside the classroom, we are allowing them to showcase their identity.

Students are very impressionable. If we, from the start, focus on their individualities and their potential, we are aiding in the development of critical thinkers. These are the people who will question authority and ask the hard questions. Whether they wind up in college or a trade, they will have the tools and confidence to be autonomous. The world will be better because of it. But it won’t happen if we try to erase their identities like misplaced commas. 

When students care

Students take ownership of their writing when they care about what they are doing. As stated by Jim Burke, “the more students work on a paper through such a process, the more they care, the more they feel a sense of ownership and pride in something,” (85). If we assign an assignment that students will connect with, they will be proud of their work. If they are proud of the work they are creating, they will do it again and again and they will get better and better. They will be more likely to share their ideas with others and they will become more independent beyond the classroom.

If we focus on our students’ autonomy in the classroom, they will be liberated by the choices that will follow. For example, giving students options when writing will help our students sift through their thoughts and form opinions and arguments that will make them stronger people, not just students.

Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski writes, “students need to write about what they care about. Sometimes what they care about does not match what we wish they would write about.” This could be a challenging realization to grapple with; as a teacher we need to set aside what our potential expectations may be. When we are teaching writing that is authentic, we need to emphasize the students’ choices and support them. We may not get why the students care so much about writing about animal crossings, but it may just be the best work they’ve ever produced.

Alex Kameen summarizes the importance of students taking ownership saying, “by placing ownership firmly on student writers, they can feel empowered to develop and use their voices. In this way, the process of writing mimics the process of productive citizenship, as it allows all voices a chance to rise.” When we give students freedom to write what they want and how they want, we are enforcing the idea that their choices and opinions matter. If they feel valued and validated, they will write more.

“The reason for writing is not merely to transcribe what others have said or recite what the teacher has taught”

-Charles Whitaker

By integrating our students’ identities and making them care, we are creating minds who will have the potential to make social change. They can’t do that if we tell them what to write and how to write.


Welcoming diversity

“Students need to feel valued, accepted, and respected in order to be comfortable sharing their feelings, worries, and hopes.”

-Kathleen Neagle Sokolowsk

“Writers represent different ideologies, values, and identities,” according to NCTE. This means welcoming these differences into the classroom. When students feel heard and safe in the classroom, we open the doors for more authenticity, more inquisitive questions, and a greater passion for writing.

It’s important to recognize students as “language users with multiple literacies.” This means not perpetuating the idea that there is a correct form of writing. If our writing gets the point across, it’s right. No language is better than another and no person is lesser than someone else for speaking something other than American English.

A blog post written by Staci Perryman-Clark dispels myths about language saying, “effective communication depends on readers’ abilities to understand the text that is written.” Clark’s post really captures the idea that anything goes. In other words, “accuracy” is not determined by the form of language, but the impact.

“The claim that any one dialect is unacceptable amounts to an attempt of one social group to exert its dominance over another. Such claims lead to false advice for speakers and writers, and immoral advice for humans.”

Students’ Rights to Their Own Language

By portraying the idea that there is one “correct” way to speak or write, we’re silencing students. That’s unethical and immoral and will not aid in the development of critical thinkers. Teach students the importance of audience– let them know that while other forms of language are right, they may not be suited for all situations. Give the students the knowledge to make those important decisions. They will be a better communicator and member of society because of it. Welcome diversity in the classroom because outside of the classroom, anything goes. Prepare them for that.

Providing diverse opportunities

If we are trying to bring the real world into the classroom, we have to try to embody the “realness.” This includes the different opportunities that people experience outside of the classroom. Sokolowski said it best: “teaching with a social justice lens means you look for every opportunity to let your curriculum be the springboard to know what it means to be a person of character in this world.”

Readings utilized in class need to be representative of the students. That means that it’s fundamentally impossible for the materials not to be diverse. Charles Whitaker says, “it is important that the materials read are meaningful to the students, relevant to their lives, and useful in addressing their concerns and interests.” If they are not diverse in their nature, students will be in shock and under prepared when they see how the world operates outside of the classroom. 

A blog post written by Ann David discusses different forms of “real life” writing. This article is so important in understanding the importance of all the different forms of writing that our students could potentially encounter. It is our job to make them aware of all of them. This will help them see themselves as writers, but also will help prepare them for life after school. If we successfully introduce the versatility of writing, students will feel more confident in their potential whether they wind up in college or a field.

“Knowing the traditional canon is often too narrow, I incorporate diverse texts; I aim to increase a student’s capacity for empathy, to help them identify with my curriculum and to understand others and themselves.”

-Elizabeth Jorgensen

Welcoming diversity and providing diverse opportunities is essential for an education that fully prepares students to become people outside of the classroom. They will have the knowledge and the confidence to share their ideas because they will have experience doing so.

Autonomy and diversity need to be present in a student’s education in order for it to be functional in preparing them for life. Students need to take ownership of their work to establish confidence. But they can’t do that if the assignments we are presenting them with are not representative of who they are. Our job is to inspire our students to think for themselves. And what better way to articulate those thoughts than writing? After all, it is their right. 


You Are a Writer, Kid.

Students often feel like the picture above. It’s our job to empower them so they feel…


When you can’t say “you’re a writer, kid” anymore, try these ways to make students feel like they’re writers:

Assign a variety of genres

An article written by Ann David discusses the versatility of writing by listing many examples of writing that people engage in, including progress notes and emails. This conveys NCTE’s idea that “writers are not static.” 

Why this helps

The more forms of writing students see, the more likely they are to relate to one. We want to provide students with those “ah-ha” moments. Students will not be bored with writing if we are giving the freedom to choose topics and to explore writing for all that it is.

Have students pick a profession out from a hat. Have them research what “writing” means in that field and have them practice it. If we show writing in all avenues, they’ll be so shocked by its variety that they simply won’t have a choice but relate to some form of writing.

Ask students questions about their work in a way that encourages their autonomy

According to Jim Burke, “the more students work on a paper through such a process, the more they care, the more they feel a sense of ownership and pride in something,” (85). If students have a say in topic choice/writing process, they are developing a writer identity. 

Why this helps

Students understand that it is their work, thus encouraging the “writer identity.” There is often a disconnect because students feel they’re writing for the teacher. It’s important to establish that even though we grade it, the work is their own.

If we spend writing conferences asking students questions like “what do you want your work to accomplish?” we are enforcing the idea that it is their project and emphasizing the idea that writing has the potential to accomplish something. Nothing is more empowering or liberating than that. 

Show the writing process

Anne Elrod Whitney suggests to, “write along with your class.” Sit in front of the class and don’t hide any mistakes. Show students that (as Ken Lindblom and Leila Christenbury say) “there is no such thing as THE writing process, but rather, many processes that writers may use to compose,” (21).

Why this helps

Students will feel less alienated. They can see their teacher, an authority figure, doing the process with them. Students will feel supported and will have the opportunity to see someone that they see as a “real writer” at work. This could inspire and engage the students.

Sit with your students. Write with them. By being transparent or authentic with our students and not hiding our own struggles with writing, we are creating a space where students can begin to feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and experiences via writing. 

Ask students to write the same assignment for different audiences

In their book, Christenbury and Lindblom talk about the importance of writing for different audiences. The three different power dynamics (writing up, writing down, and writing across) are used as a way to assess the audience and adjust rhetoric accordingly. 

Why this helps

Students will feel more confident in their ability to reach different audiences. Use triagulation (53) to teach students how to reach a larger audience. This will increase confidence. They won’t exclusively be “writing up”, like in traditional school writing. If they feel confident expressing their ideas to an audience, they will write more. If they see their writing accomplish something, they will be more likely to see it as “writing.” 

Ask students what grade they think they deserve

Involving students in the grading process is a great way to engage and motivate them. The quote from Burke mentioned earlier shows students care more when they’re more involved. 

Why this helps

If students feel more involved in the grading, they will have greater stake in their writing; they will own it more. If we have students spend a few minutes writing about what grade they deserve and why as well as what they could’ve possibly improved on, they will feel pride when defending their decisions and their words.

Take it a step further: have their personal assessment count towards their grade. They will feel validated and they will acknowledge their role as a “writer.”

5 Free Online Resources to Help You Write Better – The Wise Ink Blog

Isn’t that what it’s all about? NCTE says “everyone is a writer.” I know it and you know it. Let’s get the students to belive it.

WWJD: What Would Jim Do

A good teacher is still a student. Education is a continuous cycle without an age limit; you don’t get to 60 years old and somehow know all of the answers. I guess one of the most important lessons is understanding that principle: we are always still learning.

If you’re a working teacher, you are most likely one of your students’ mentors– who they look to when they have a question. If you’re an aspiring teacher, you are both motivated and scared of that possibility and responsibility. But whether or not you’re a working or aspiring teacher of writing, you’ve probably thought to yourself “WWJD”: what would Jim do?

As an aspiring teacher of writing, I hope to have the same impact on the field as Jim Burke. So when I’m staring helplessly at a blank lesson plan, I will pray to Jim Burke for guidance and flip through the bible for some answers. During my time of desperation, I will remember the three E’s: 

  1. Engage
  2. Experience 
  3. Empathy


Burke describes that each class and assignment should be, “emotionally and intellectually engaging to all students.” This idea emphasizes the importance of choice in the students’ education– this could mean giving some freedom when it comes to choosing the texts and topics they read and write about. When creating an assignment, consider designing three potential topics and allowing the students to choose which they resonate with the most.

“More than writing to learn, I want my students to use writing to think.” 

Jim Burke

When we start to shift the focus from writing to learn to the more holistic view Burke suggests, students are more actively engaged in their writing. Relatedly Ken Lindbloom and Leila Christenbury write, “bringing student writers into the real world of writing creates greatly enhanced opportunities and can truly set fire to student’s engagement, creativity, and empowerment.”

We want to use writing to create critical thinkers and you can’t do that if they don’t care about what they’re doing.  


In order to properly engage students, we cannot overlook the importance of experience in this equation. Rather than viewing assessments as a “prompt”, Burke urges us to look at it as an experience. 

“They are carefully designed experiences meant to teach and transform, to educate and engage.” 

Jim Burke

It’s crucial to not separate these ideas: it’s like a continuum. You can’t engage your students without creating an experience for your students.

NCTE states, “writers grow when they have a range of writing experiences and in-depth writing experiences.” The more variety we give them, the more experience they will have. The more experience they have, the more they will grow. 

You also can’t create an experience without considering your student’s previous experience. NCTE states, “everything they have experienced, who they are, where they have been, and what they have done impact their writing practices, literacies, and language attitudes.” Writing is so closely tied to identity, so everything a person has experienced influences the writing experience. That cannot be ignored in the classroom. 


When considering the student’s experience, empathy also needs to be present. Burke urges us to, “work fully to understand the experience of the user for whom you are designing. Do this through observation, interaction, and immersing yourself in the experiences.” If we are interacting with our students during the writing process, we are more aware of the struggles they may be facing. 

“I want students to have experience in navigating the real challenges that come up in any act of writing. This means I have to let them in on what authentic process is like.

Ann Elroy Whitney

By being vulnerable in front of students, we are putting ourselves in the same space as the students; what better way to understand what we are asking our students to do than do it with them and let them in on the process?

So WWJD? Teach effectively by engaging your students and focusing on their experience while never withholding empathy. Sounds easy, right? Definitely not. But that’s why we, as teachers, never stop learning from people such as Jim Burke. 

Dear Future Teacher

“I don’t need writing,” they’ll say. Kids, man… such know- it- alls. Nope, not about this. Tell them everyone needs writing, and show them with authentic writing.

When they’re fighting you about writing, go the authentic way and remember:

  1. There is more than one way to do this
  2. We are empowering students
  3. There will be consequences

More than one way

There are many authentic writing assignments and many ways to engage students; Shaunna Evans was able to list 21! She advises, “encourage them to engage in meaningful writing that has a purpose– and more importantly, a real audience.” 

Picture this: Instagram caption assignment.

It would be one thing to have the students write captions and that be the end of the assignment. But let’s expand it:

Have them randomly pick pictures and create a caption. Tell students to ‘like’ other students’ captions. Now, they’re writing to a real audience, giving them incentive to think outside the box and try to appeal to their audience. 

Why does it matter?

With so many different options, it’s a lot easier to give each student what they need. Some will grow up to be academics, others will be involved in a trade. But we can’t just “choose” which student to focus on. By teaching and emphasizing a wide array of authentic writing, students will find their voice and not want to fake sick every time you assign a writing assignment.

Empower students

“If we wish to create a future-public that is capable of generating ideas and discoveries, we must make an intentional shift towards the authentic teaching of the writing process. By placing ownership firmly on student writers, they can feel empowered to develop and use their voices.”

-Alex Kameen

As teachers, we have the power to empower students. Don’t let your students’ creativity and voice be stifled and silenced. Authentic writing gives students the opportunity to be a part of their education and to explore their ideas.

Why does it matter?

If we think of writing through a social justice lens, we are obligated to teach students authentic writing. If we choose to instead focus on formulaic writing, we are not preparing students to be critical thinkers. We are telling them to follow rules/not question anything. By using authentic writing, we are aiding in creating the minds of the next generation.


But that’s okay! Authentic writing can be controversial and there may be some obstacles to overcome. Sometimes assignments may be too controversial, like this assignment asking students to argue for Nazi agenda. Don’t let this example scare you away from authentic writing. Don’t do it alone; consult with veteran teachers for advice.

Why does it matter?

Authentic writing has the potential to have negative implications because it is authentic. If it wasn’t, everything would be sunshine and rainbows. Because we are trying to teach students skills that will serve them in the real world, it’s important not to shy away from the consequences. Discuss these with students; help them understand that authentic writing involves choices and choices have consequences. Rather than letting authentic writing fears take over, use them as talking points with students. If we hide the possible consequences, can we really call it authentic writing?

Utilize authentic writing and let students understand and appreciate writing in all of its forms. If the math teacher next door exudes “my subject is more important than yours because I teach these kids real things,” energy, ignore them. These kids may never need to figure out the circumference of a circle in life, but they will need to write. Teach them the authentic way.

Research Papers, Grocery Lists, and Starbucks Cups: It’s All Relevant

Did you know that writing is NOT just about five paragraph essays and hamburger paragraphs? You probably don’t believe me, but it’s true. To be fair, I also had trouble believing this. Think of how many times you wrote today. Even stupid little notes to remind yourself not to forget to bring shoes or the grocery list your mom asked you to start. I’m sure it was a lot, right? Now, add about 25 more examples to the number you have in your head…that’s probably a bit closer to the amount of times that you actually wrote today. Crazy, right?

The applicability of writing hit me at work the other day. I work at Starbucks and we have these sticker machines now so unfortunately the art of writing on cups has slowly disappeared. However, sometimes there are problems with the machine or a customer makes an modification to their drink and we need to write on their cup. It’s a bunch of abbreviations that probably look like another language to someone who doesn’t know what they’re looking at. For us baristas, we know exactly what every letter, marking, and symbol on the cup means. And it is serious business. You would not believe how seriously people take their coffee orders. If they want their sugar free vanilla latte with heavy cream, eight splendas, four pumps of caramel syrup latte at 180 degrees, you better NOT write 179 degrees. They’ll know the difference. I don’t know how they know… but they know. Look at this cup for example.

The sharpie marking is very important. It’s a form of communication, like any other writing. Schools probably wouldn’t ever teach kids that writing on cups is a form of “writing” but why not? A pen hit the surface. Words were created. Ideas were shared. Why is this not considered “writing”? We can’t just hide kids from a whole world of writing because we decided along the way it’s not “good enough.”

Imagine this: a career day where kids get to dress up as different professions and talk about how writing is used in that particular space. What a creative and fun way to introduce the versatility in a school setting. Bring in guest speakers from different professions too! Why not?!

We use writing to communicate ideas and to connect with people. It’s a “social activity”, according to authors Ken Lindblom and Leila Christenbury, and I couldn’t agree more. The social aspect, especially in a world so focused on social media, is critical to our understanding of writing. Moving past the idea of academic writing and accepting writing as a fluid concept in the sense that it has a place in all spaces will enhance writing and allow for more creativity and deeper thinking. 

Related to creativity, I love that there is no such thing as “THE” writing process. Authors Lindblom and Christenbury stress this in their book as well. Two authors can choose to write two completely different ways for different situations; this doesn’t mean one is right and one is wrong. Why would we let anyone decide who is right in that instance? I don’t know anyone who I’d trust with that much power. The idea that there is no one writing process is very empowering. If one style doesn’t work, try another. This can help encourage young writers who may struggle with those “outline” worksheets. People generate ideas differently and that’s okay. Encourage that. Don’t stifle it. Everyone has their own approach because everyone’s experiences influences how they approach an essay question or a book report, for example. 

So whether you’re writing a grocery list, a research paper, or a Starbucks cup– it’s all writing and it’s all relevant.

Challenges as Writing Teachers

I think a big challenge that writing teachers face while preparing students to be effective writers in college and in their lives after school is the whole idea of test preparation. It’s illogical for curriculum to be designed around a test that will not impact their lives outside of the one test day. Instead, curriculum should be more diverse and serve students in whichever career/life path they choose after graduation. It should focus more heavily on creativity and independence, rather than all students producing virtually the same essay. Writing is just another form of communication and there are tons of ways to communicate. So why are we teaching kids only one specific (and frankly, ineffective) way? I can only imagine how much more enthusiastic and willing to write students would be if they felt more connected to their piece. I think one concern I have is exactly how can one single teacher provide enough diversity to properly prepare all students without favoring a specific type of student (i.e the one who may go on to college to become a doctor, for example). I think putting those expectations on one teacher is not the most efficient way to handle the situation. I’m not sure how it works in bigger schools, but in my elementary school there was one writing teacher who taught every grade. So it’s not a surprise that I didn’t feel truly prepared to tackle all the different forms of writing in life. We learned one way from one teacher. However, if there were more teachers voicing their perspective and showing us different ways to do things, maybe the outcome would’ve been better. I think being aware of the fact that writing is a form of communication and truly understanding its value could help emphasize the fact that there are groups of people who are constantly being quieted or oppressed by the education system. In a way, the way writing curriculum is taught now is just perpetuating that vicious cycle. I think one way to combat this issue in a sense would to introduce more writing styles/ specializations earlier. Maybe have separate classes that instead of alienating/making life harder for the students who won’t go on to college, for example, it can focus on other types of writing that will be relevant to them. Still give them the same tools, just other ways on how to use it. I think an important skill that a teacher needs to possess to teach writing effectively is the ability to understand each individual students’ needs and not see them as better/worse than another student. Treat each student the same in the sense that they all get the same attention and guidance, but don’t try to fit students creativity into a mold with test prompts and structured formats for essays. Writing should be empowering, but this is not the case when there are limitations and “rules” that must be followed. We aren’t properly preparing kids for the “real world” if we are not teaching them how to come up with their own ideas and convey them effectively. Why wouldn’t school be about teaching children how to live life after school? We are basically setting kids up for failure by not teaching them how to explore their own ideas and passions and forcing them to do something one way and claiming it’s the right way. Not following the “rules” should not result in points off a rubric. There are so many different forms of writing and situations where ideas need to be communicated; we have to be teaching children that. So they’ll know how to write a resume or they’ll know how to write a college application or a cover letter. Exposing kids to a wide range of different forms of writing will only help them understand just how important it is.

Gaps in Education

The citation gap is the one of the most relevant gap that I have come across. I had a less than traditional high school experience, but when I finally entered my district high school my senior year, I expected to be fully prepared to enter college. However, when I started my college career at Binghamton University the following year, I realized that I was very much mistaken. I had not learned any other writing format other than MLA. This was unfortunate because MLA was essentially obsolete in college education. I could not understand why they drilled MLA into my brain if it was basically useless. The choice gap also hit me right in the face. I was so accustomed to being told explicitly what to write, how to write, and what formula to follow. Now, in college there were suddenly a large array of “choices”? How strange. You’re telling me that I have to come up with my OWN unique topic? Unheard of. This freedom, while should’ve been liberating, was terrifying. The style gap also plagues me in my college career. In high school, I would ask how long the response needs to be. They would say one paragraph, which according to “the formula” was 5-7 sentences. In college, when you ask how long the response should be, they say “however long or short you think it needs to be in order to efficiently respond.” I’m sorry– what? Again, this type of freedom was nerve-wracking. What is too long or too short? Similarly, the template gap was very relevant to me as well. The five paragraph essay is an idea that is so heavily focused on during high school but becomes a moot point in college. Once I started to branch out from that structure template, my writing became more unique, complete, and efficient. I was able to develop my own style and voice, rather than just writing 5-7 of the same structured sentences in a paragraph and then repeating that process five times. One thing I think I did learn in high school was the revision process. We focused a lot on this and although these “formal” revisions aren’t very prevalent in college, I do think I learned the tools to be able to revise my own work for my college classes, which has made me a better student.