“What I think I am doing when I write for the young is to articulate the glorious but fragile human condition for those whose hearts have heard but whose mouths, at the age of five or ten or fourteen, can’t yet express. Bur the truth is that I can’t really express it either. So what happens is a reciprocal gift between writer and reader: one heart in hiding reaching out to another. We are trying to communicate that which lies in our deepest heart, which has no words, which can only be hinted at through the means of a story. And somehow, miraculously, a story that comes from deep in my heart calls from a reader that which is deepest in his or her heart, and together from our secret hidden selves we create a story that neither of us could have told alone.” — Katherine Paterson

Editor’s Note: This page is under construction.

Writing, and teaching writing, involves courage and trust. For as Katherine Paterson states, it is one heart in hiding reaching out to another—you reaching out to each of your students, your students trusting you enough to share their writing, their thoughts, their passions. Each time you write, even when writing the most objective nonfiction, you write from your own personal perspective, making choices that reflect the wholeness of who you are. Sharing what you have written, to even one person, is a risk of self-exposure. Sharing your writing with an entire class can be both frightening and overwhelming.

Writing family stories, writing emotional stories, writing stories inspired by memories and experiences, writing nonfiction stories about history, government, politics, science, all involve sharing your internal world with the outside world, all involve personal choices of words and thoughts. Even the sequencing and construction of a story or article reveals the mind, and heart, of the person writing.

And when the topic is controversial in any way—and in our current cultural atmosphere what is not controversial?—the personal risk increases.

You cannot force-feed courage, but you can create a classroom atmosphere that is conducive to building trusting relationships. If your students trust you and each other, they will be more eager to write, and more eager to share their writing with you and their classmates. Trust takes time, so be patient with them and with yourself.

Creating a Classroom Atmosphere of Trust

Following are suggestions on how you can create a classroom atmosphere of trust so that kids can take creative risks:

  • Be trustworthy yourself. If a student shares a confidence, keep it confidential.
  • Have clear, simple, classroom rules and behavior standards that you communicate immediately on day one and consistently implement throughout the year.
  • Be vulnerable; share that certain situations make you nervous, or anxious. Let them know you make many mistakes all the time. Let them know that you have both succeeded and failed at different things, at different times in your life. That allows them to feel all those things, too.
  • When you don’t know an answer, admit your don’t know, then try and find the answers together. If you are wrong about something, apologize and move on.
  • Mix, mingle, and move all around your classroom. And when circulating through the room, make sure you are turned toward the majority of students.
  • As discussed, the best way to create a class of writers, is to create a class of readers. Fill your classroom with all kinds of books. You can always get some help from your school librarian, and your local public library children’s librarian, for help finding books that will be of interest to even the most persnickety kid in your class. Librarians are also great at forgiving late returns! If you can, allow your kids to have time during the week when you read aloud to them as a class, and also time when they can read silently to themselves. It would be great if you allow them a choice in where they can read quietly—on floor pillows, or sprawled out on a rug, in the hallway right outside your classroom door—any way you can imagine to give them some kind of semi-privacy.
  • Write yourself, and experiment. Try writing nonfiction articles, fiction stories, poetry, comics—anything in every genre—and read your writing aloud to your students, warts and all! You can ask your students to critique your work. Listen to their observations and thank them. Then rework your pieces and share your rewrites with your students. Modeling positive behaviors beats lecturing every time. (Provide link to critiquing work here.)
  • Whenever possible allow your students some choices within your writing assignments. Most professional writers choose not only what they write about, but how they write about it. The best writers follow their passions, and learn to trust their passions. Kids who are interested in an assignment will try harder if they have some personal investment in it. On the other hand if you say— write whatever you want to write about—one third will jump right in, but two thirds will stare off into space for hours, or drive you crazy coming up with a gazillion ideas without settling on one. You can build trust, giving them some freedom to choose within a given assignment.
  • If a student is not comfortable reading their work to the class, let him or her watch and learn. Eventually, all students will share when they are ready. Or alternatively, perhaps your shy or reluctant student will let you read their work to the class.
  • When critiquing student work, always discuss it objectively in terms of what works, and what doesn’t work. Always, always, begin with sharing positive observations about their work. (Provide link to critiquing work here.)
  • Most kids love having their work displayed in class, but there are some who like to keep their writing and their artwork private. Respect those feelings and check with your students as to their comfort level before displaying their work.
  • Show kindness, compassion, and respect. Be fair and consistent with both positive and corrective interactions. Your students will be inspired by your example and will trust you more.

Online Resources

Check out the following resources for recommendations on building trust with students:

©2019 The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance