It’s the first Friday of the school year, and my classroom buzzes with excitement and the movement of pencils across a page. My students are working on creating writing territory maps, and there is a lot of chatter as they discuss some of their favorite things with their writing tables. Two students (oddly) bond over a shared fear of kidnapping, while others find out that they have the same favorite food (spoiler: it’s usually pizza). Regardless of what they’re writing down, they’re all engaged in the process. Creating writing territory maps is one of my favorite activities of the year because of this energetic environment.
The idea of writing territories originated from Nancie Atwell, but I got the idea for creating writing territory maps from two places. First, from Penny Kittle, who referred to these as “heart maps” in her powerful book Book Love, and focused on the music that lives in one’s heart; the second source was the Two Writing Teachers blog, one of my favorite websites for practical teaching ideas and inspirational reflection.
Writing Territories are a powerful writing tool for three main reasons.
- Students can create something unique to them.
I am always amazed by the wide range of “map” I see – from kids doing something basic like a heart to something incredibly detailed like a rocketship or a pair of ballet slippers. Students take this map to heart because they get to choose the shape. They get to choose what they write or draw within their map. The only part that I play in this activity is suggesting categories to brainstorm ideas (using this lovely handout from TWT), but they are the designers. I stress to them that what they put in their maps are things they think they might be able to write about later, which brings me to point number two.
- Students have something to reference when they feel stuck.
We do a lot of choice writing in Language Arts. Often when we’re working on a skill or a certain aspect of grammar, students will have the opportunity to choose their topic for writing. It is so much easier for students to find a topic for a “free write” if they have a cache of ideas sitting on the first page of their writer’s notebook. Again, students have choice in what they can write about, and their writing stems from choices they made at the beginning of the year. Everything they pull from these writing territories is all their own, which means that they feel more ownership over their writing. Students feel like their notebooks and their writing for them, not for their teacher.
- This activity helps build our writing community.
Students love connecting – heck, all humans love connecting. When my students sit at their tables and brainstorm their favorite things, or places they’ve traveled, or issues they care about, they are bound to talk it out with the people around them. Many of them find connections they didn’t know they had. They may end up talking to someone they thought they had nothing in common with. When students share their interests and what is important to them, it opens them up to sharing their writing as a community. When students struggle, they turn to their classmates for suggestions. By brainstorming and creating writing territory maps, students are given a chance within the first week of school to start building this writing community. They also have the shared experience of creating something that is valuable to their individual self.
There is power in choice, and there is power in students sharing their experiences. One of my main goals as a teacher of writing is to help students take ownership of their writing and to see the value in building strong writing skills. I hope that by appealing to their interests, students can use their writer’s notebooks as a place to explore their own writing selves. They can build on ideas they’ve created within their writing territory maps, and little by little, grow as writers.