The Current Logo

“…write about something that matters.”

Written by Fred Mindlin
February 13, 2011

Reflecting about the implementation of our Maker pilot here in the Central Coast region of California, I often go exploring among my roots in childhood experiences of progressive education (meaning student-centered, ungraded, project-based authentic learning), years as a home-school teacher and one-room rural school substitute teacher, and the whole language/whole child convictions I developed in my studies for a multiple subject credential at UCSC and as an elementary classroom teacher for ten years.

One jewel from that rummaging around was the quote I’m using as the title for this piece, from Marjorie Frank’s “If you’re going to teach kids how to write, you’ve gotta have this book!” Frank explains that a usually quiet and teacher-pleasing nine-year old refused to write throughout twelve sessions. Exasperated, she blurted, “Well, when ARE you going to write something?”

The student’s almost inaudible answer: “When you ask us to write about something that matters.” (Frank, 1979, p. 14)

Montage of Make Magazine covers

Maker affords us the opportunity to involve students in activities and projects where they create real things that matter to them, as creations, and then, before, during, and after those processes, they write about and reflect on what’s going on. Often the final product of their reflection may not be a written text, but along the way to a video or an audio presentation there are many pieces and parts of writing and its processes.

A skeptic’s question—“Where’s the writing in that?”—prompted much reflection on the particulars of those pieces. The organizational thinking, not just of linear ordering but of logistical coordination, which goes into the completion of authentic project-based learning opportunity is a writing process. The conversation and confrontation that create the sea of talk on which working in a group depends is essential to the winnowing process which allows some things to float to the surface and other insights to sink into irrelevance.

Perhaps most important, the selection of which elements to include and how they are organized and presented as a communication product afford a context for teaching genre awareness and meta-cognition about writing as a multi-layered and social activity. Our students need to navigate in a world of poly-modal inputs, and to see themselves as critics and creators, not just consumers, in this world.

It’s the creative power of technology, from the pencil to the Kinect, that matters–and our student/scholars need to be guided and encouraged to take control of the technology in their own lives and use it to express their voices. Michel Guilin (sp.?) I believe is where I first read this idea, which I paraphrase: For the most part, in most public schools in the US, for black and brown kids the computer tells them what to do, only white kids get to tell the computer what to do. Sadly, my own observations at the primary level and in general for “low-performing” schools is that drill and kill predominates. Often it’s pretty good as training material, and may result in improvements in test scores in isolated areas. But it’s still using the model that the computer is the smart one, and you have to try to beat it at a video game, rather than empowering children to create their own games and express themselves as they choose.

I recently completed a ten-week long term-substitute job (teacher on maternity leave) teaching second grade bilingual, Spanish/English, entirely Mexican-origin families, overwhelmingly working class. I had to follow a script for about 80% of the day, but the two bits of creativity we were allowed were a writing program and an ELD block. So I implemented a unit around using string games to develop dexterity for keyboarding, and we had a lot of fun. I photographed and video taped them teaching and showing their figures, and we wrote about them, created an altar for our local gallery’s Day of the Dead exhibit, and mounted figures into a book for the returning teacher. During our final week, we used Photostory 3 to create digital stories from our writing and the still images.

With support from a MacArthur grant for digital writing though the “Digital Is” Initiative and the “Maker Faire/Make Magazine” Collaboration of the National Writing Project, I will be able to return to that classroom over the second semester of the 2010-2011 school year, and hope to be able to arrange a field trip to the Maker Faire in San Mateo with at least some of those students.

I’ve seen remarkable growth among these children with this project-based, student-centered approach. We have used “We Are All Teachers In This Classroom” as our motto, and I’m hoping that the returning teacher might be open to implementing some of the “Roots of Empathy” program, so that the children can extend the skills they are developing as not only authors but videographers and multimedia producers into even deeper personal exploration as they mature.

While it may sound pompous to speak of genre theory as the frame for teaching writing to second grade English language learners,  I think it’s a real key here. Let me return to Marjorie Frank’s work to conclude. The pages which follow the story of the girl who wants to write about something that matters include one of Frank’s self-proclaimed declarations of bias, that:


“Writing” is NOT synonymous with “stories” or “essays” or “themes.” There are dozens of kinds of literature–some long, some very short–with which kids should have contact AND which they should write. (Frank, 1979, p. 16)

The two pages following consist of “a list of over two hundred kinds of written forms that your students can be trying.” While the list is ungrouped, it’s a wonderful springboard for a discussion of some categories of writing, and a way to explore the challenges of communicating in new ways about our making. You can see those pages as part of the preview of the current edition of the book at Frank’s publisher’s website,

One final point: the fact that so many of the items on Frank’s list are mundane makes me want to allude to Mike Rose’s work on working class intelligence. I think one of the benefits we can reap from exploring making things and writing about the processes of doing so is to rekindle respect for the literature that inhabits as well as illuminates our lives.


Frank, Marjorie. 1979. If You’re Trying to Teach Kids How to Write, You’ve Gotta Have This Book. Incentive Publications.

Rose, Mike. 2004. The Mind at Work. Viking/Penguin.

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