Essay by Norah Colvin, a member of the Congress of Rough Writers.
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I was quite fascinated with Charli’s introduction to this conversation about raw literature right here on her blog at Carrot Ranch Communications. I was unfamiliar with the term but her explanation made it clear.
“Raw literature is first-works. It’s the original material a writer produces in response to an idea, challenge or aspiration. It’s the novelist’s first draft; the poet’s scribbling of a sonnet; a screenwriter’s initial storyboard. It’s a memoirist’s recognition of a relevant story to share. It’s that ah-ha moment when the imagination outpaces the fingers across a keyboard or a tongue giving diction. It’s the writer’s eye on the blank page like a sculptor’s gaze through a block of marble.”
Her description makes these works feel authentic, real, and valuable in their own right, without a requirement to be measured against anything else. They are first works; not drafted, revised, and edited; not polished for publication; but works that deserve recognition for their contribution to the process that is writing.
As an early childhood educator, I was immediately excited about how the concept of “raw literature” might apply to the writings of children. Surely nothing can be more raw than those first steps into the world of writing; nothing more authentic, more real, or more valuable in their own right. Surely these first works need to encouraged, nurtured, and respected as are those of any writer.
Unfortunately, all too often, writing done in school is seen as an opportunity to bring out a red pen and have all its failings highlighted. If that were to happen to one of our first works immediately we downed our pen, or removed our fingers from the keyboard, how would we respond? Would it encourage us, or would we feel crushed, never to try again?
Too often school writing requires children to write a single draft, about a given topic, in a particular genre, in a set and limited amount of time, with little opportunity for planning or discussion, or for editing and revision.
Then they are assessed on it.
They are required to be pantsers whether they like it or not. Some do, relishing the challenge. These are often the children with advanced language and literacy skills; able to use book language, having an understanding of story and other literary structures, and an above average ability to use conventional spellings. A red mark on their work is rare. They are more likely to receive words of encouragement, if one could consider “Good work” to be encouragement.
Many more children dread the challenging experience, knowing that whatever they produce, their pages will soon be more red than black. As with much else at school, they accept their lack of choice and do what they can to meet task requirements.
Far better than this approach is that of “process” or “portfolio” writing. In some ways, it does for writing what DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) does for reading. It values writing, and the process of writing. Everyone, including the teacher, writes. Every. Day.
Children keep all their pieces of writing, their first works, their raw literature in a folder or portfolio. Teachers conference with them about their writing, and children choose the pieces to work on, the pieces to polish for publication.
In a conference, children talk about their writing; including their purpose for writing, what it is about, what they like about it, and where they think it needs improvement. The child might read it to the teacher, and the teacher responds as a listener, requesting more information if required for meaning, asking questions to prompt ideas for revision. A teacher’s pen never touches the paper, but children are taught and provided with guides which they use for editing their own work. Only when a piece is near ready for publication might a teacher, in the child’s presence and with the child’s permission, edit the work. For early childhood writers, perfection is never a requirement anyway. Their invented spellings and implied complications and solutions are always a treasure.
Conference responses are also modelled for, and taught to, the children to enable them to share with and respond to each other in ways that help progress their writing process. Responses from peers are always appreciated and valuable.
Children’s raw writing is just one facet of a classroom program identified by an immersion in literacy and literature. Without exposure to literature it is impossible for children’s writing to develop. Children must be read to daily from a wide range of rich literature. They must have many opportunities for independent reading, and be involved in group reading such as readers’ theatre.
When I first became involved with process writing in the 1980s, we called ourselves “A Class of Writers”. We wrote daily. In addition to their independent “process writing” time, children wrote a diary, which was really about communication between each child and me. They wrote to me first thing in the morning. I wrote back to each in the afternoon after school, and so it went, every day of the school year.
The children were always bubbling with ideas, begging for writing time. Ideas came from what we had read together, or they had read independently. Sometimes they wrote about real experiences, sometimes from their imagination.
Alongside all of this, there was instruction, guidance, encouragement, and support, often referred to as “scaffolding”.
We cannot simply give the children pencils and paper and expect them to write. We must model the skills for them, and make them privy to techniques that writers use, through an appreciation for, not an analysis of, literature.
We need to extend children’s repertoire by sometimes providing a stimulus, a suggestion, a structure; by modelling a genre; and writing collaboratively to teach particular aspects of the writing process. And more than that. Every teacher must be a writer. I don’t mean a published writer; but every teacher needs to write, with and alongside their children. How else can they understand the process and what they are expecting of children?
If we view children’s writing as raw literature, giving it the same respect as we give our own, how differently may we view them as writers? How differently may they view themselves?
If you are interested in reading more of my thoughts about children’s writing, check out Writing to order – done in a flash! and Writing woes – Flash fiction on my NorahColvin blog, or my early childhood teaching resources for writing on readilearn.
Charli, thank you very much for this opportunity to share (some of) my thoughts about children’s raw literature.
Norah Colvin is an educational writer, an educator, and a writer. She is passionate about education and driven to write in almost equal measure. She writes for the joy of combining both passions in one pleasure. Responding to flash fiction prompts at the Carrot Ranch provides an opportunity to hone her fictional writing skills in a supportive community while sharing her thoughts about education and learning. Exposition and fiction: the twin joys of reading and writing.
Norah has contributed to numerous educational publications over the years. She currently shares teaching ideas and resources for early childhood educators on her website readilearn.
Raw Literature is an ongoing conversation about those first works we create as writers, as literary artists. Guest Authors share personal insights on their craft, its process, the experience of creating raw literature and what they do with it. Carrot Ranch is a dynamic literary community that creates raw literature weekly in the form of flash fiction (99 word stories). If you have an essay idea, pitch to Charli Mills, Lead Buckaroo, at firstname.lastname@example.org.