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The Write Way: Michelle Fitzpatrick

With more than 15 years working as a professional writer and editor, master’s candidate Michelle “Billie” Fitzpatrick began to think about children and their struggles to learn the craft of writing.

“Writing is such a part of what we do,” she says. “If a child is unable to communicate his or her thoughts, then you can have great ideas, but never get to a place of sharing them.”

When her young daughter struggled to learn numbers and the alphabet, like many parents, Fitzpatrick turned to books for help. Along the way, she found herself thinking more about the process of writing and particularly became interested in the science behind it. This personal research led to her discovery of the Ed School’s Mind, Brain, and Education Program, in which she is currently a part-time student.

“I’m in my mid-40s, [a time when] so many people are bored with what they are doing, but I was looking for a challenge and wanted to see if I could discover a way to give back,” she says of her decision to return to graduate school. “Education seemed to offer the perfect combination of factors.”

For Fitzpatrick, herself, writing has never come easily. “Any writer will tell you it’s always hard work to write; the difference is writers enjoy the process.” After working her way up in the publishing world as an editor, Fitzpatrick discovered she had a knack for ghostwriting nonfiction books, particularly in the self-help genre. To date she has written  28 books, including two authored by Chaz Bono.

Many authors can share their thoughts verbally but often don’t know where to begin with the writing process. This is where Fitzpatrick comes into play as ghostwriter, crafting the authors’ stories or point of view on a subject through interviews and research, and translating it for readers. “As a ghostwriter, I help people learn how to write,” she says.

Fitzpatrick says that, with practice, anyone can learn to write. “In fact,” she says, “you can learn to write better and better.”

While no one would likely argue the importance of writing in K‒12 education, many students struggle from a young age. Today roughly four out of five students are considered nonproficient in writing. “They’ve learned grammar,” she says, “but must also be taught the process of writing. Unfortunately, how we teach writing is often hindered by the way we think about writing.”

As part of her research, Fitzpatrick is examining how executive functioning – one’s ability to organize, stay organized, and manage stress, as well as one’s attitude – affects the writing process, and opens up how we think about the steps of prewriting, organizing, drafting, and revising. One of the challenges for many students  is the belief that a first or rough draft needs to be perfect. If teachers emphasize the need for all students to go through several drafts, use peer evaluation, and become aware of their own internal process, stress around writing can lessen in the classroom, she says. “It helps to articulate a megacognitive process about writing.”

During her time at the Ed School, Fitzpatrick hopes to create supports for teachers. In particular, she wants to help teachers develop curriculum and instruction methods for teaching writing based on neuroscience. “There is not enough understanding about what’s entailed in the curriculum or process,” she says.


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