This morning, my Two Writing Teachers colleague Kathleen Sokolowski wrote a must read post entitled: Should Educators Be Writers? In it, she traces her thinking about this topic, from its genesis in Donalyn Miller’s also must read post about teachers and reading: Getting On The Bus, to the way in which (as a writing teacher herself) she practices what she teaches. Kathleen poses many thought provoking questions, and she ends with an invitation to teachers to join a conversation about being a eacher of writing who writes. If you are an educator, these are two posts you cannot miss, for they pose vital questions and raise important issues for the work you do with your students.
Then, my friend Margaret Simon shared her DigiLit Sunday post, in which she asked us to share ideas about: What inspires you? Inspires your students?
As I was out shoveling what felt like acres of snow this morning (New Jersey was hit hard in yesterday’s storm), these three posts were rattling around in my brain: Why don’t more writing teachers write? Why don’t more writing teachers find it absolutely essential to write? How does my own writing life inspire and inform me as a teacher? And why is that important for my students?
So, here are some thoughts:
Being a writer makes me a more empathetic writing teacher. I know how hard it is to come up with topics to write about (those of us who participate in the TWT Slice of Life writing community know this feeling well, especially on Monday nights!), I know how hard it is to stick with a writing idea, and I know how hard it is to revise with anything other than a feeling of dread. So, when I sit next to a student and confer about the writing process, I do so with an intimate knowledge of the process itself. It’s not so much just a case of: “Here’s a strategy I learned from Ralph Fletcher”, as “Here’s a strategy I learned from Ralph Fletcher and here’s how I used this strategy in this writing piece of mine.” In other words: being a writer allows me to “show not tell”.
Because I write, I can better figure out the mini lessons and strategies that will work with my students, that will help move them along their own writing process. I get to use my own writing to experiment with ideas I learn about from the Units of Study, or Penny Kittle, or Katherine Bomer, and this allows me to sort out and prioritize what I want to share with my students. Some writing lessons sound good, but are not as effective when put into practice in a classroom writing workshop. I find that trying lesson ideas out on my own writing helps me sift through strategies and cull the ones that will work to advance my students in their writing lives.
Because I write, I have an understanding of the time it takes to write. So often, we allow our mini lesson to become maxi lessons, which leaves our students with less class time in which to write. This is when many of us (especially at the middle school level) turn to our students and blithely say, even as they are charging out of the door to their next class: “Don’t forget to finish that for homework!” My informal research tells me that this is the number one complaint middle school students have with regard to writing workshop – a lack of recognition about the time it takes to write. Because I do this work myself, I have a better idea of the time it takes to draft, revise, and mull through topic ideas.
Here are some ways in which I keep my writing life alive during the school year:
A “for school writer’s notebook” which moves with my student’s writing workshop year. Here, I brainstorm writing ideas, write entries, flashdraft ideas, sketch, and do all the stuff I expect my kids to be doing. Because it’s for school, I write about those parts of my life which I feel comfortable sharing with my students, and are topics my sixth graders can easily relate to: walks with my dog, baking fiascos, being bored waiting for a dentist’s appointment.
A five minute entry or an attempt to revise a small piece of writing can go a long way. At a time when all of us struggle with having enough time to do all the other stuff of teaching (prepping, grading, the forms we are required to update and fill), it can be difficult to find the time to do one more thing: write. So, I start small and do just a bit at a time whenever I can fit this in. One thing I do know, is that my students really appreciate it when I pull out my notebook and show my work; this always helps our conferences become more targeted and efficient.
A teaching blog so that I can participate every Tuesday in the Slice of Life round up (practicing small moment and memoir writing), every Monday for Jen Vincent’s It’s Monday, What Are You Reading? round up (practicing book reviews), and Poetry Friday (practicing poetry response). I really believe that this is key.
Finding a supportive PLN which inspires and holds me accountable. It’s easy to fall out of writing practice and find ways to avoid writing, but a PLN is one way to stay honest, and keep trying. My Voxer writing group, for instance, is a wonderful inspiration to try new craft moves, read and analyze what my teacher friends are writing, and stay excited about the writing process.
What is the one thing I wish for? An acknowledgement that writing is important, and that PD time should be set aside to encourage more teachers to do this kind of work. School based writing groups, department meeting times, PD credit…these are just some ways in which administrators and instructional coaches can help us create school cultures in which writing is valued because it is practiced by teachers and students alike.
Kathleen did such a wonderful job starting this important conversation. I hope many teachers join in, participate, and become “writing ambassadors in our schools and communities”.