Thursday, August 15, 2013

Finding the Writer Inside

Writing has never been my favorite subject to teach.  I have always felt overwhelmed by the myriad of topics to cover:  outlining, ideas, details, grammar, conventions….  The list goes on and on.  Where does one start?  In what order should they be taught?  Then there was the issue of having to read what my students wrote.  More often than not I was disappointed in what they produced and I would be frustrated that I had not guided them toward brilliant (I would have settled for clear) writing.  How could I get them to improve?  Grading was another problem.  During my student teaching I was assigned a fourth grade teacher as my “master” teacher.  Her approach to grading writing?  Count the errors.  A student who wrote pages full of wonderful ideas could end up with a lower grade than someone who wrote only one short, rather empty paragraph.  Even in my teaching infancy I knew that didn’t make any sense.  After a few years I was introduced to the Six Traits, which finally offered me some guidance for giving more focused, constructive feedback.  Still, there was the matter of converting those assessments into grades.  It seemed when it came to writing, I always had more questions than I had answers.  Not surprisingly, writing became that subject that was put on the back burner and often got bumped for “more pressing” concerns. 

This summer I stumbled onto two professional development opportunities that changed my perspective.  One of those opportunities I discovered was Teachers Write.   Teachers Write is an online summer writing camp put on by Kate Messner, along with Gae Polisner, Jo Knowles, Jen Vincent, and a variety of guest authors.   As I told the parents at Back to School Night last night, I am excited to share what I learned with my students this year.

When I first began seeing mention of Teachers Write on Twitter, I was curious.  I had been an English major in college and occasionally wrote for myself, but I hadn’t done any real writing in years.  I wasn’t exactly sure what Teachers Write was all about, but on a lark I went ahead and signed up.  I bought into the idea that if I was going to teach writing, I needed to write myself.  My intention was to lurk and maybe write in response to some of the prompts.  When others began sharing online, I was amazed (and more than a little intimidated) by the quality of the writing.  In spite of this, I decided one day to make the leap from lurker to active participant.  With heart pounding and hands shaking, I shared some of my writing.  I understood in that moment that putting your words out there for others to read is a little like standing naked on a street corner.  (Or so I imagine. I haven’t actually stood naked on a corner.  Honest.)  You are opening yourself up, letting others see what’s inside, the real you.  For the first time I realized that some of my students might feel the same way.  I remember vividly being in high school and hating the idea of anyone reading my writing.  The only saving grace was the fact that my teachers didn’t actually read it in front of me.  I would hand my paper in, and then a few days later I’d get it back with some hastily scribbled comment and a grade.  My junior year teacher, however, wanted us to have our parents proofread our essays before handing them in, which absolutely mortified me.  Fortunately, my mother must have understood this particular idiosyncrasy of mine and would dutifully sign my papers without having read a word.  Having experienced such acute anxiety myself, it was strange that I had never considered that my own students might feel the same way.

I believe it was the positive, encouraging atmosphere of Teachers Write that led me to share my writing with the authors and other participants.  The writing wasn’t picked apart and left to die in puddles of red ink.  The comments were directed at what worked about the ideas and the craft.  The power of praise is incredible.  (Did I really not know that before?  Or had I simply forgotten?)  It made me want to write more.  The implication for my teaching is obvious.  I need to focus on what my students are doing right and praise the heck out of them.  Sure, they will need to be taught how to improve their writing, but if they see that their ideas are valued, they just might care enough to want to apply those lessons to what they are crafting.

During the camp, there was an interesting conversation about planning vs. “pantsing,” as in flying by the seat of your pants.  I have always taught writing as a process.  First, we brainstorm.  Next, we plan by using a graphic organizer.  Only then do we actually begin the first draft.  So, what did I do for the first prompt?  I jumped right in and began drafting.  No brainstorming.  No outlining.  Just writing.  And you know what?  It wasn’t totally awful.  I learned that there will be times when I just need to let my student write, let the ideas flow from their heads to their paper.  It may not come out perfectly, but that’s what revision is for, right?  Writing should be freeing and inspiring, not constrained and regimented, if we want our students to enjoy writing.  Process is important to teach, but perhaps first we need to develop the love of writing so our students will see a need for all the little “rules” that exist so we can make our message as clear and powerful as it can be.

I learned a couple more important lessons from my experience with Teachers Write.  First was how joyful the act of writing can be.  I found myself feeling happier and more energized on the mornings I would write.  The simple act of putting thoughts to paper, creating things that had previously not existed was invigorating.  The other lesson I learned was writing requires bravery.  It is our job as teachers to create an atmosphere in which such bravery can exist.  Where ideas and personal voice are valued above mechanics.  Where mechanics are valued as simply the means of making those ideas and voices heard.  As a teacher this means my job will be to help my students find their voices and to show them all the ways they can make them be heard.  While grades will still be necessary, I will focus more on praising my students' achievements and providing feedback that will help them to keep moving forward as writers.

I still have a lot of questions, but for the first time I am eager to explore writing with my students and know that it will be my students themselves that hold many of the answers I seek.

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