Every winter for the last few years, I’ve been invited to spend some time with about 70 middle school writers at Cheektowaga Central School. These are some of my favorite days of the entire year, and why wouldn’t they be? I easily learn as much as I teach on those days. I’m smiling just remembering it all. Ever have a 13 year old give you feedback on something you’ve created? Talk about a humbling experience.

So…………..what else was I doing there anyway?

Connecting kids to their content.

Don Murray, Nancie Atwell and Lucy Calkins call this establishing writing territories. Georgia Heard goes about it this way. In the end, the objective is the same: help kids remember where they have been, who they have loved, and what mattered. Then, help them think about where they want to go, who they want to be, and how they might get there.

We did it differently this year, thanks to a bit of inspiration from Lisa Sonora Beam. Her book came to me on recommendation of a librarian who knew about my passion for creative visioning strategies…particularly those that writers use.

“But this is a book for entrepreneurs,” I hesitated, concerned that it wouldn’t really suit my needs.

“Yes it is,” my librarian friend told me. “It’s for you and the kids at Studio too, though. You’ll see. Just spend a few minutes with it.”

And so I did.

I’m so glad that I did. And nobody is paying me to say this, either. ; )

Beam leads readers through a variety of creative processes that enable them to remember where they have been and where they are going.

Over the last month, kids at Cheektowaga Middle School designed their own visual journals, self-inquiry portraits (examples of which are tucked into these sample pages) and mandalas. These pieces reflect what matters to them most. This is their content, and there are many ways to help them get at it. This is where we began this time.

How can teachers connect this kind of content to their curricula? By providing choice. Perhaps you expect writers to engage in research, produce a digital story, podcast a tutorial, and write an essay for the local paper this year. Why not let them ground the work of those genres in the content that they value? Why not let them write about the things that interest and engage them? Even if the writing that you believe they need to be doing is less authentic than these examples might be—perhaps especially when the writing is less authentic than these examples might be—kids need to be writing about things that make a difference to them.

It’s small shifts like this that can make a big difference.

Often, when I speak with parents and teachers of “struggling” writers, they will tell me that their children “can’t” write. Or they won’t. Or when they try, they can’t generate their own ideas. Perhaps this isn’t as much as a writer-problem as it is a situation-problem.What are we asking them to write about? How does it matter to them? How will it make a difference for someone else?

Many of the kids that I worked with at Cheektowaga were self-proclaimed “struggling” writers. Their ideas amazed me and broke my heart in a hundred different ways, and their teachers made me proud to be a part of this profession. They’ve given me permission to share their writing territories projects here with you, and we’ll be adding more to the stream above throughout the rest of this week. Take a peek at this writer’s territories:

Where do we go from here in Cheektowaga?

Some of these writers and their teachers, the ones who are eager to continue what they’ve started, will be joining the WNY Young Writers’ Studio. We’ve brought our community to them and to their teachers, so that we might continue learning from one another long after this single school year is over. I’m so excited to welcome them into the fold. Looking forward to creating a writing space with them that will exist beyond the four walls of their classrooms…something that they have a hand in designing and sustaining.





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