What’s in a Name?

Each year, on the first Tuesday in September, a new group of young people comes to my classroom. They are not quite my students yet. They are curious visitors who slip into new seats and open new books and steal glances at each other to see who else has landed on this foreign soil. They have left the comfort of their homeland and have entered my room, which, at least at first, might as well be across the world. Their names are Madison and Elijah and Bishesh.

Fast forward to my favorite part of that day, writing workshop. Their names change. During our writing block, that day and every day thereafter, all of my students have the same name. Each is called writer.

Have you ever visited a different country where you were unable to either speak or understand the language? Do you remember that uncomfortable feeling of being “outside” the culture? It can be intimidating and scary. When I welcome students who are coming from classrooms where writing instruction was not delivered using the workshop model, I use the language of the workshop right away. I want to invite all students into the writing community we are beginning to build in our classroom. Especially the reluctant writers. I begin by calling them writers.

As soon as they pull out their crisp, clean marble notebooks and personalize them with stickers and photos and Sharpie marker decorations, I am calling them writers. It is only one word. It feels somewhat awkward and a bit clunky at first. When I call them writers, some students giggle. Some students shrug. Some students sit up straighter and just a little bit taller. But, most importantly, all students feel the citizenship, the membership, of belonging to this writing workshop. That is the connection I am making for every child in every seat in the collective writing community.

Using the name, writer, not only welcomes every student to the community, it also seeps quietly into each student’s sense of self. Can you remember when you were first called teacher? How empowering it was to realize that others identified and valued your work by naming you teacher. Wasn’t seeing your name on that first faculty list so confirming and energizing? Didn’t it make you want to go out and be the best teacher in the world?

So it is with our young students. I remember teaching first grade several years ago, and I had a very reluctant writer. His name was Paul. Paul verbally articulated his dislike of writing on the very first day of writing workshop. His early attempts at writing/illustrating were weak and without energy. But, despite his disinterest, I called him writer just like all of his classmates. Every day. Even as he continued to resist being part of our writing community.

And then, about mid-year, I noticed that Paul was one of the last students to put his writing away at the end of the writing workshop each day. I caught him sitting in a chair next to the window, pen in hand and notebook propped on his knees long after the workshop ended. He was finishing a story, he pleaded. Could he have just a few more minutes? Writer.

When students accept ownership of the name writer, they also accept the responsibility to adopt the habits of mind that writers employ. When you call a student a writer from the first day and every day from then on, he begins to believe that he is, indeed, a writer. He transforms into the kind of person that pays attention to the world. He understands that every moment of his life has value and that in order to find meaning in those moments he needs to write stories. His writing becomes recursive and he knows he must move between drafting and revising as he works. He also understands a writer must jump back and forth from writer to reader, and back again, during the writing process.

He understands writers write to convey meaning to someone, somewhere. And he looks beyond his paper to his audience, asking himself, “Will my reader understand what I mean if I choose that word?” or “Have I told the inside story as well as the outside story in this small moment piece?”

When you call students writers, you are saying that you believe in them. They don’t have to convince you they can write. “Heck, I already knew that!” you say to them and wink. What you have given them is automatic entry into your writing community. And that sometimes changes the way they will feel about writing for the rest of their lives.

No longer are your students visitors. They are full-fledged citizens of the writing workshop in your classroom. And with their citizenship, you have conveyed a lifetime membership in the wonderful world of writing.

What’s in a name?

Everything.

Christy Weisiger is a literacy specialist in a K-5 school in Virginia. Her passion for teaching children to write is equaled only by her own love of writing. She is currently revising her first middle grade chapter book.