Writing Redefined: Broadening Our Ideas of What it Means to Compose

by Mary Howard

We have really been looking forward to welcoming Shawna Coppola as our first-time chat guest host. #G2great is grounded in the belief that our professional understandings are in a perpetual state of growth –– a continuous flux of re-envisioning, revising and refining what we now know so that we can explore the possibility of what is as yet unknown. We love that Shawna beautifully captures the spirit of this deep-rooted belief in the title of her book: Writing, Redefined: Broadening Our Ideas of What it Means to Compose (2020, Stenhouse).  

Before I began this post, I paused to ponder what the key related words, redefine and broaden, mean to this ongoing process. The synonyms below felt deserving of a word cloud.

This image was created using https://www.wordclouds.com/

I’m struck by the placement of the two key words above sandwiched in the center since it happened by chance. It’s a perfect complement for a process of redefining according to Webster’s dictionary: to reformulate, reexamine or reevaluate especially with a view to change or transform. The combined meaning of these words with a focus on change or transform our thinking assumes action. This inspired me to read Shawna’s book in the hope that it would redefine and broaden my understandings about writing. I was not disappointed. 

Starting with the cover, Shawna invites us to redefine what should count as writing so that we may broaden our perspective. With transformation in mind, she poses a critical question in chapter 1: Why “Redefine” Writing? On page 2, I felt like I’d found the heart and soul of Writing Redefined that instantly became the WHY of this post: 

Of the students you have known over the years––both those you’ve taught and those you’ve learned alongside––who among them have been granted access into the “writing club”?

Shawna defines membership to the writing club as those who self-identify as writers or have been identified as writers by others. As someone who came to a sense of access to the writing club very late in life with lingering feelings of membership that still wavers now and then, I was captivated by this challenge. I am grateful for Shawna’s wisdom for the transformative thinking that can swing the door ever wider to welcome all children (and their teachers) into the writing club. Shawna’s response to the first of three questions seems like a good starting point to redefine and broaden our view from her wise eyes:

What motivated you to write this book? What impact did you hope that it would have in the professional world?

Seven or eight years ago I began to notice via my social media feeds how much more frequently my friends, family, colleagues, and acquaintances were using visual text to, in essence, share the stories of their lives. At the same time, while working as a literacy specialist in a K-6 school, it became so apparent to me how quickly the ways in which we encourage our student writers to compose visually “dropped off” the older they got and the further they moved through the grades. This seemed so out of touch with what was happening outside of school spaces! I began to dig into the decisions our younger students made as writers, even when they were composing visually (e.g., for a picture book), and I realized that almost all of the decisions we make as writers, with the exception of modal decisions, were the same regardless of the mode we used. For example, we make decisions around content, audience, genre, organization, even motor planning whether we are composing a literary essay or a wordless picture book. I was lucky enough to work with colleagues who were willing to co-teach writing alongside me in a way that broadened the forms and the modes of composition that have been traditionally privileged in schools. When I saw how both students and my colleagues responded to this, I could not help but want to bring what we had learned–what our students had taught us about composition–to a larger audience.

What strikes me about Shawna’s response is her commitment to use her noticings about writing happening outside of school and concern for the dwindling writing happening in schools as a call to action. This was the launching point for an exploration of the ideas that would BROADEN “the forms and the modes of composition traditionally privileged in schools.” Inspired by her own wonderings, she shares across the pages that follow the HOW and WHAT to accomplish her lofty but very achievable WHY.  

Shawna’s book quote further illustrates this idea of “access to the writing club.” My curiosity about why I did not feel early access when Shawna and others do, motivated me to contemplate how we can ensure that this is not the case for the children who enter our classrooms now and in the future. 

Turning to Twitter as a Lens for Writing Redefined

For the sake of this post and to satisfy my curiosity about this writing club access, I decided to turn to our #G2Great chat to peruse Shawna’s twitter style wisdom on this topic. Very early in the chat, Shawna shared the comic she wrote to summarize her book: 

Shawna’s tweets further illustrate a starting point to REDEFINE writing

With this wonderful advice guiding our way, I’d like to return to Shawna’s second question that adds insight to this invitational process:

What are your BIG takeaways from your book that you hope teachers will embrace in their teaching practices?

• That the compositional practices we have privileged in school spaces has been far too limiting for far too long (and many composition scholars have been arguing this for literally decades) 

• That when we limit what “counts” as writing in school spaces, far too many students are left out–and are left unengaged

• 3) opening our minds and hearts to a wider variety of forms and modes of composition––all of which exist outside of school spaces!––can make writing more authentic, more joyful, and more inclusive.

My Final Thoughts

As I look back to where I began this post, I once again return to the idea of granting all children access to the writing club so that no student is ‘left out or unengaged.’ I am struck by Shawna’s last words in the question above that should inspire us all to take next steps to redefine and broaden our view of writing:

“…opening our minds and hearts to a wider variety of forms and modes of composition––all of which exist outside of school spaces!––can make writing more authentic, more joyful, and more inclusive.”

We are grateful to Shawna Coppola for opening our minds and hearts through her book and generous sharing with our #G2Great family. She inspires and informs our efforts to redefine and subsequently broaden what it means to compose as we ensure that all children will have access to the opportunities that will welcome them as members of the writing club, not just in school but long after they leave our classrooms and venture out into the world where a much bigger writing club is awaiting them.

And so, I close with Shawna’s response to the final question followed by a quote from her book that brings my fascination with granting access to the writing club full circle:

What is a message from the heart you would like for every teacher to keep in mind?

That the best way to develop our pedagogical practice as teachers of student writers (but really, as teachers of anyone!) is to build a habit of noticing what kids CAN do. What can they do as writers, and what do they know, that will help us determine what they are “ready for” next? I promise folks that once you build this habit of using an asset lens to see the many gifts our student writers can offer, the more joyful and effective your practice as an educator will be.

And Shawna’s book wisdom:

Thank you for helping our #G2great family see those many gifts, Shawna!


Preview and study guide for Writing, Redefined:

Voices from the Middle piece by Shawna Coppola: Writing, Redefined

MiddleWeb piece by Shawna Coppola: Our Students Need a New Definition of Writing

Infographic piece by Shawna Coppola Writing: Genre, Forms and Modes (Oh My!)

#TheEdCollabGathering presentation with Shawna Coppola and Dr. Tracey Flores: Somos Escritores: “Redefining” Writing for Great Inclusion, Authenticity and Engagement

Shawna Coppola’s website

Writers Read Better: 50+ Paired Lessons That Turn Writing Craft Work into Powerful Genre Reading

by Mary Howard

On August 2, 2018, we had the great pleasure to welcome Colleen Cruz back to our #G2Great chat as second time guest host. Our first chat on 3/30/17 celebrated her wonderful book, The Unstoppable Teacher: Real Strategies for the Real Classroom. (Heinemann, 2015). Of course, we didn’t hesitate to begin planning for a repeat visit as soon as we heard about Colleen’s amazing new book, Writers Read Better: 50+ Paired Lessons That Turn Writing Craft Work into Powerful Genre Reading (Corwin, 2018). We were thrilled to spotlight this powerful new perspective for nonfiction writing.

Colleen’s newest book explores writing and reading in such a brilliantly unique way. I quickly realized that it was important to look at this incredible information through Colleen’s very wise eyes. This week I am taking a departure from our typical chat post by sharing an interview with Colleen. I couldn’t type fast enough to capture her thinking and I am so pleased to share her exact words with you here:

Your book fills an important void in the literacy world by celebrating the reading/writing connection with a twist. Why did you decide to write about this particular topic? 

I’ve been playing with the idea behind this book for several years. Those ideas began with a game I frequently play with my friends who are also writers (Colleen wrote about this in the introduction of her book on page 16). I would read a headline and then they would guess how the lead was going to go. I noticed that my friends who were writers were far better at playing the game than those who were not. This made me really think about the idea that writers really do read better. I often think about this idea as a reader and a writer. When I’m in the middle of a book, I’m so much more aware of the moves that writers are making because I am also a writer. I notice how they use craft and structure and purpose and I can spot fake news in a minute since I can see how they are trying to manipulate the reader as a writer. I feel like this book is very much an idea that I’ve been playing with for a long time and a colleague of mine had been begging me to write about the ideas that led to this book. I wanted to write about the very process that I use in my own life and work and to put those ideas in a book to help teachers move toward this thinking. I think this book is needed because it’s a shift in our thinking. Teachers typically think about writing about reading or mentor texts so the ideas in this book are asking us to think of writing as a way to service reading and that felt so important. I didn’t write this book sooner because it felt so obscure so I wanted to really think about how I approach this in my own life to make it clear to teachers through this book. The main reason I wrote this book is that I know how it has impacted me as a writer.  As writers, we are a thousand times stronger readers than those who are not writers.  There are so many things that teachers haven’t tapped into yet and so I wanted to support this thinking.

How can we encourage teachers to embrace writing as an entry point that would also increase reading understanding? Where can teachers begin to do this important work?

I think that this depends on the priorities and needs of each teacher. Sometimes our needs aren’t always our priorities and so we have to take that into consideration to begin this work. One place I see teachers as most interested in doing that work are those who feel pressed for time – for example, middle school teachers who are compartmentalized. They are limited in the amount of time they have so approaching reading through writing makes the work more efficient and streamlined. For many teachers, the typical strategies they are using in reading to teach comprehension, decoding or engagement just aren’t working. They feel at a loss for what they can do to move those students forward when what they are doing isn’t addressing their needs. Sometimes the best way to support those kids is for them to be on the other side of a desk and assume the role of writer. Helping them to approach reading through writing gives them a meaningful purpose and empowers them as both a writer and reader. Writing gives them the behind the scenes tricks to see how texts work. When kids realize that they just wrote a piece about their dog, then they can begin to see that this will help them read a text about volcanoes. This gives us a different way into reading and it’s such a powerful process. Many teachers say that they’ve instinctively felt those connections between reading and writing and yet they haven’t looked at the ways that writing lifts reading. For those teachers, Writing About Reading is absolutely next step territory for them to explore this powerful process.

Reciprocity has long been an essential topic in literacy research. How does Writers Read Better explore the teaching of reading and writing from a different perspective?

When I first began writing, I was really surprised to learn that there were no books on this topic. I was aware that the research supporting this idea goes back as early as the 1950s. Lucy Calkins was one of the first to show that these connections existed and that often kids learn to write before they learn to read. So, this is not new research. What’s interesting to me is that Katie Wood Ray wrote about how reading supports writing in 1999 in her groundbreaking book Wondrous Words. I think a lot of people hadn’t really looked at this idea before but as soon as we read about it, it seemed so obvious. Because the ideas were so earth shaking, many teachers only think about reading coming before writing.

We as teachers tend to hold onto our thinking in one direction. I recently had an experience where I was looking at my computer screen in a video chat but it was showing the mirror image so I had a hard time knowing which hand to raise and which side of the book to hold up. A lot of teachers have used mentor texts as a way to use reading to support writing so looking at how writing supports reading may feel foreign. Many teachers believe that reading has to come first because that’s what they learned and so it feels more natural. But if teachers were to truly look at the research they could see that we can support the first independent exploration of a text in reading by exploring that thinking on paper first through writing.  I think many of us just hadn’t thought of it that way before so now we are considering a different way of looking at our teaching. For most teachers, once they’ve explored this idea they think, “Of course!” They begin to realize for the first time that it’s been there all along, like when you look at the dashboard and see the gas tank image. It’s always been there but we just haven’t noticed it before. Now we can begin to think about reading and writing in a unique way. Helping teachers maneuver this different way of thinking is the crux of my entire book. For some reason, they may be having a hard time wrapping their heads around how writing can help reading. And even though it may be what we learned first, we can change our perspective by looking from a different angle.

You created incredible lesson samples in the book. What thinking were you hoping to support by sharing these lessons?

I don’t write “lessons” so I didn’t intend to write lessons in this book. But as I started thinking about the book, I realized that in order for teachers to be able to do this work, they would actually need to see it in action. The lessons are meant as flexible ideas, so a “One thing you can do is…” kind of thinking. This helps teachers see what this could actually look like in practice. I tried to make the lessons as streamlined as possible such as creating the lesson steps at the beginning. A teacher who knows how reading and writing workshop works could just read the lesson steps and create their own lesson process while there are specific examples for those who need more support. I wanted the lessons to be written out the same way that I would do those lessons with children so that teachers could imagine one way the lessons might look. After Carl Anderson read the manuscript he said that he started playing a game with himself where he would wonder what the flip side of this reading skill was in writing. He said that it was helpful to see an example of a flip side of writing using reading. I intentionally did not include every writing skill in this book because this is not a writing for writing sake but a writing for reading sake book. The paired aspect of the lessons is the essential piece, so the only lessons in the book are lessons that support reading. You can find wonderful informational writing lessons in gorgeous books like Craft Lesson by Ralph Fletcher and JoAnn Portalupi or Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study. This isn’t a book just about writing, but the interplay between reading and writing. Any lessons you would purely teach for reading or for writing aren’t in the book. Pairing the lessons helps to give the message that the lessons are supporting the reciprocal skills for both reading and writing.

What looks different when a teacher is a teacher of literacy rather than a teacher of reading and a teacher of writing?

The message that I am after is that I’m not teaching a subject but am teaching you how to be a literate human being. Some teachers say, “I’m a writing teacher so I have to teach grammar, thesis statements and show not tell” or “I’m a reading teacher so I have to teach decoding, prediction, and interpretation.” They may teach both of those subjects in the day and yet they still think of them differently. When they’re in reading workshop, they’re only thinking about reading. When they’re in writing workshop, they’re only thinking about writing. My goal is to change that thinking. I do think that the digital revolution has helped this thinking. The digital revolution underlined the notion that literacy is a dialogue. We don’t just send our ideas off like a message in a bottle. Our readers read but our readers also write. This provides an amazing interplay as a reader and a writer. This idea also has huge implications in terms of things like social justice and the way we live in our world now. When we take in information like a sign in the subway, it’s not enough to take that in passively but to think about what it means in our world. So, when you’re teaching literacy you’re teaching active reading and active writing in response to it.

What do you hope this book will accomplish in the education field and inspire these changes in our teaching?

Well I have a hope and a worry for this book so I want to start with the worry. My first book, Independent Writing, was published in 2004 (Heinemann). When that book came out my hope was that teachers would open up new opportunities for kids to write and to engage in more independent projects. Unfortunately, that book was ahead of its time and many still consider it revolutionary that kids could actually run their own writing projects. My fear is that Writing About Reading will sit on the shelf as an idea that is ahead of its time even though it stands on the shoulders of esoteric research. My fear is that it might not change the way that teacher teach and that they will still see their role as teaching reading and writing vs. teaching literacy. My hope is that when teachers are teaching writing they will begin to see the connections to reading and how they can use writing to support reading and when teaching reading they will think about what could come comes before this or after this. I hope that they will begin to wonder if there is a reciprocal skill that they can explore. If we are willing to look outside of the way we think about of reading and writing then we can begin to explore writing in science, socials studies, math and across the learning day. When students are watching a music video or commercial, I would hope that they will also think about something they have written so that they can see the interrelationships between word choice, language and meaning. My hope is that teachers will start to change the way that they look at their teaching and that they will always think about the other side or ancillary skill and recognize multiple sides for another way of thinking. It’s like moving our teaching from 2-D to 3-D thinking.

Do you have any closing thoughts you’d like to share?

I hope that teachers know that the book is designed to make their lives easier and more fun. This is a book with a lot of fun and joy and I made a real effort to make it accessible to different learning needs with many unique access points that lean on 21stcentury ideas – not just digital tools but the mindset of the information revolution that we will need to engage in critical thinking as both producer and consumer. The biggest thing that I hope is that it makes the readers of the book understand that they can go off the rails and invent their own lessons that are playful accessible and interconnected.

I’d like to personally express my deep gratitude to Colleen both for writing this wonderful book and for taking the time to give us an insider’s view of her thinking process. Colleen has met her promise in the introduction to create a book that would capitalize on the “magic”. In Colleen’s words:

“No matter how you teach, whatever your curriculum is, or how much time you have, you will find something in this book that will not only help bring more energy and connectivity to your literacy instruction, but also maximize our time and your students’ ability to transfer literacy skills.”

Let the “magic” begin!