By Lauren Cassani Davis, 4th Grade and Middle School Writing Teacher

“Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant.”
—Robert Louis Stevenson

Messiness, joy, and student choice: This is what a writing classroom should look like, according to Luke Reynolds. Reynolds is a writer and English teacher who’s spent 20 years in the field gaining insights on how to engage and elevate young writers by weaving creativity into his teaching (he also keeps a blog). Hearing how Reynolds has engaged students in English—the subject I’m most passionate about—was a highlight of my chilly, invigorating weekend at the Learning & the Brain conference in Boston.

Some approaches to teaching writing involve teaching specific techniques and structures—topic sentences, plot structures, literary techniques—before sending students off to write. While this can ensure that students achieve certain standards, Mr. Reynolds worries that this overly structured approach risks shutting down passion: “Anytime we prioritize rules over passion, the passion goes extinct,” he said. It’s like telling a child about the properties of sand before telling them to go play on the beach. By the time you’ve finished your spiel, all the enthusiasm will probably have fizzled out.

Instead, Reynolds flips the onus and autonomy onto students. Writers are people write. So how do you become a better writer? By writing—a lot. It’s that simple. In Reynolds’ classes, students spend most of their time filling page after page with whatever ideas spark in their imagination: “I don’t care what you write about, just write,” he tells them. He fills in the rules of revising, editing, and grammar after the fact, through mini-lessons and one-on-one workshops.

Teaching this way is like planting seeds. It takes more patience, and more faith—what if they don’t write what I expected? what if the product isn’t what I’d planned—but the risk is worth the reward. Reynolds shared some incredible stories of students who found their voice in his classroom, who previously hated or refused to write. It can be hard to take your inner ego and control-freak out of the equation when you teach, but it’s essential to fostering creativity in your classroom.

Returning to my writing classroom after the conference, I now have all sorts of new ideas bubbling around in my brain for projects that will excite my students’—and my own—passion and creativity. I particularly loved Mr. Reynolds’ idea of printing a paperback anthology full of student work, and then having the students sell copies of the anthology to raise money for a charitable cause that they research themselves. I can’t wait to plant those seeds—and see what beautiful things will grow.