Building Resilient Writers: 3 Moves for the New School Year

Building Resilient Writers: 3 Moves for the New School Year

by Patty McGee

Let’s face it: writing is hard. And to boot, writing requires the writer to be vulnerable. This pairing of “vulnerable-hard” can potentially create big challenges. For many, putting pen to paper can be downright scary! As teachers, we are not powerless in this situation. In fact, what we do early on in the school year can make a world of difference. By establishing a strong community of writers at the onset of the year, students build writing resilience.

What does a community of writers look like in the classroom?

A community of writers is one where students engage in the often uncomfortable work of writing with the ongoing support of their peers and teachers. This community is rich in overt supports that remind students that everyone’s role is to show each other how to use strengths to meet challenges (a favorite Brené Brown quote of mine). This includes:

  • Feedback using appreciative language

  • Methods and protocols for working through difficulties

  • Partnerships that support one another

  • Teachers that mentor writers

  • Lots of writing and conversation

Why would we want to establish a classroom writing community?

If we can create a space of trust, where students can show up again and again fully aware of their challenges, and write despite them, writing growth will happen. Writing is, as mentioned earlier, an act of vulnerability that can scare many students away. You have seen it. It looks like students sitting and staring at the blank page for ages, a revolving door of bathroom breaks, and even some tears shed when asked to write. In the long run, when students feel the authentic support of their teachers and peers, they invest more in their writing. With this investment, students thrive.


How can we create a community that can support students’ resilience in writing? 

First, let’s clarify what resilience means. Dr. Andrea Pennington, integrative doctor and author, defines resilience as “persistence and the inner quality of determination that means you keep putting one step in front of the other, even when times get tough.” Resilience is necessary for learning and growing. I argue that no other academic experience in school requires more resilience than writing. Writing, the act of communicating on the page for all to see, requires persistence, especially when it feels really uncomfortable.

Here are three simple ways to create a community that can support students’ resilience in writing:

1. Start with strengths.

When working with students, I often ask them to tell me about their strengths and challenges in writing. More often than not, students list, with great detail, their challenges and yet have difficulty naming their strengths. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is because writers primarily learn ways to fix their writing. We can help writers redefine themselves by vividly naming their strengths and the impact those strengths have on their writing. Students can lean on those strengths as they build resilience.

Naming strengths felt a bit clunky to me when I first started. To help, I use a simple sentence frame. 

“When…, you…”

This can sound like:

  • When you explain the facts in your informational writing, you ensure your reader learns more.

  • When you share the inner thinking of a character, you add a new dimension to the story.

  • When you vary sentence structure, you make your writing flow.

  • When you plan your writing, you organize your thinking.

Try this frame out. Take a peek at the writing below (the introduction to an informational piece on tigers) and name a few strengths.

Maybe you said, “When you ask the reader to pretend, you help them picture the topic.”  Or perhaps you said, “When you speak directly to the reader, you help them feel part of your writing.”  Perhaps you found a different strength to name. Whatever the case, when writers receive strength-based feedback from you, they are able to recognize the skills they bring to writing, and then they are more likely to write and continue to use those specific skills.

What’s more, students who receive this feedback can also begin to use the same frame when responding to each other. It is remarkable how much more confidently students approach writing when they know that others are on the lookout for what is strong.

2. Avoid the word “but.”

Oh my goodness, this tiny three-letter word can be the undoing of student confidence. Notice what happens to the words before “but” in this statement:

When you start a new paragraph, you help the reader chunk information. But you did not indent.

In essence, everything before the word “but” is negated, wiped away, disregarded. Once we hear the word “but,” we ignore everything that came before it, no matter how important it is. To build resilient writers, we can follow strengths with next-step opportunities. Try replacing “but” with a sentence frame becauseyou are ready… 

Because you wrote full sentences, you are ready to vary your sentence structure.

Instead of...


You wrote a whole lot on this page, but you need to bring in some structure.

Because you were able to get your ideas down on paper, you are ready to organize your thoughts.

You wrote a sentence or two, but you need to write more.

Because you were able to get started, you are ready to write even more.

You wrote a whole lot of words, but you did not punctuate.

Because you have written sentences, you are ready to choose which punctuation you’d like to use.

You shared your opinion and backed it up with facts, but you can still add more reasons.

Because you have shared your opinion and backed it up with facts, you are ready to try other ways of supporting your opinion.

Eliminating “but” makes a world of difference in building more resilient writers.

3. Normalize struggle.

A healthy writing community is one where writers engage in productive struggle. Productive struggle is defined by ST Math as “the process of effortful learning that develops grit and creative problem solving.” The most resilient writers engage in productive struggle regularly. However, the experience of productive struggle can be uncomfortable. Often, when writers feel like they are struggling, they abandon ship. The best way to build a community where writers embrace productive struggle is to normalize and welcome it.

As educators, our struggles are the greatest gifts to our teaching. Engaging in struggle means that we have worked through challenges, and can draw upon that learning in our classrooms. Look back at those times you have struggled in writing (gosh, I hope you have them!) and notice what you did to work through those tangles of motivation, or stamina, or confidence, or focus, or organization. Share these unique brands of difficulty with the writers in your class. When students hear about your hard parts, they will face their own with a sense of confidence and a bit more comfort.

And when writers engage in the beautiful complexity of productive struggle that is part and parcel of writing, celebrate. You may say:  “You seem stuck right now. I have been there myself. In fact, all writers have.” You might also say, “Struggle is a wonderful gift. If you are struggling, it means you are about to learn something new.” When a writer’s struggle is perceived as an asset, the writer emerges stronger than before.

So as you begin this new school year, focus on building resilient writers. Three simple moves you can make is to name strengths, eliminate the word “but,” and normalize struggle. This will pay off in spades in the school year to come.


What Next?

Join author Patty McGee for a free PD webinar, Building Resilient Writers, now available on demand. This research-based webinar will enable educators to combine key types of instructional strands, practice sessions, and levels of support to help students write more and, in turn, become stronger writers.  Watch now! 


About the Author

Patty McGee

Patty McGee, M.Ed., is an educator, author, and consultant.  She has worked near and far—in her own hometown of Harrington Park and across the world in Abu Dhabi and many places in between. Patty’s passion and vision is to create learning environments where teachers and students discover their true potential and power through joyful inquiry, study, and collaboration. Her favorite moments are when groups of teachers are working with students together in the classroom. It is truly where the magic happens. Her latest book is Writer's Workshop Made Simple: 7 Essentials for Every Classroom & Every Writer. Patty is also a contributing author to Benchmark Writer’s Workshop and the program author of Benchmark Grammar Study Mico-Workshop.


You May Like: Writer's Workshop Made Simple: 7 Essentials for Every Classroom & Every Writer

Let’s face it—Writer’s Workshop needs rescuing. It’s either bedecked and bedazzled by cutesy extras or done in a lockstep manner that hinders young writers’ natural processes. Teachers are thirsty for guidance, and in this book Patty McGee delivers a streamlined new vision. Each chapter brings us back to the heart of writing workshop while elevating practice with current writing research. Topics include:

  • Simple, low-cost moves to build an environment where writers grow

  • Tips for pruning that help teachers know what to trim and what to preserve

  • Strategies for building time for writing and writer-centered feedback

  • A toolbox of strategies to support writers of all stripes