Teaching writing starts with teachers writing

Photo by Tirachard Kumtanom on Pexels.com

If you tell your students what to say and how to say it, you may never hear them, only the pale echoes of what they imagine you want them to be. ~Donald Murray

In the last several years, I have been challenged (in the best possible way) to get out there and write by one of my teaching idols, Amy Rasmussen, of the Three Teachers Talk Blog. In her professional development sessions at TCTELA, she has challenged her attendees with this question, “How many of you consider yourselves writers?” That first year, I lowered my hand. She followed up with, “How can we truly appreciate the difficulty our students face when we don’t struggle through writing?”

**Insert knife in heart**

Before that moment, I would bring my carefully-crafted piece of writing, complete with its correct spelling and punctuation and strong introduction. Something I spent hours creating, laid in front of students in a quick flash. It was left to them to assume the creative process I went through to get that piece of writing on the document camera in front of them. Since I was an English teacher, surely it was easier for me than it was for them.

Amy was right. I had robbed my students of the opportunity to see the struggle that comes with writing. That it took me HOURS to get the words on the page to be “just right.” That I had to use an electronic thesaurus to come up with more precise wording. That I wrote one sentence twelve times before I liked the way it sounded.

Writing is freaking HARD! And we cannot teach our students to write effectively if we haven’t gone through that struggle ourselves.

So, I had to change. I started writing in front of my students. I modeled the vulnerability I wanted to see in them. I let them watch as I failed (sometimes miserably) to pull the best words from my brain, to spell words correctly, to begin and end a piece of writing powerfully. I let them help me try and try and try again. In conjunction with this process, I began implementing Writers Workshop. I watched students as they began to blossom in their own writing. Through workshop, they began to raise their voice through writing. Through the workshop approach, I became an English teacher.

Since moving into teacher leadership, I try to be a disciple of Amy’s message with the teachers I work with, particularly when it comes to teaching writing. This week, I got to spend two days of professional development working with my beloved secondary English teachers discussing literacy practices that last. We spent ample time participating in authentic reading and writing practices, approaching the training as students of literacy rather than teachers. In one particular activity in which I did a model lesson for integrated reading and writing, I asked teachers to read two texts related to loving one’s heritage and beauty. I have included the lesson sequence below:

In the writing phase, we explored madman writing discussed in Betty S. Flowers article, Madman, Architect, Carpenter, Judge: Roles and the Writing Process. According to Flowers, there are four personas a person should adopt when writing. The madman is the initial phase when a person lays a gush of language on the page with no outside voices governing the words and flow of the piece of writing. The architect looks at the writing and selects large chunks of writing to arrange them in a pattern. The carpenter nails ideas together in a logical sequence, making sure each sentence is clearly written, creating a flow of one sentence to the next. The judge comes back to inspect for punctuation, spelling, grammar, etc. Sometimes, the judge tries to come in during madman writing. When the judge enters, imagine the voice of a grouchy English teacher saying, “You need a comma there!” In our writing activity, we practiced shushing the judge until it was her turn during the final look at the piece of writing.

I loved watching the teachers rapidly laying words on a page in any structure of their choosing. I saw them think and write and think and write and cross out and write. I saw them as their judge began to creep in, and they shook her away. Some had a hard time shushing their judge. (I can fully connect with these individuals as I find it very hard to turn my judge judge off as well.) As we shared our drafts with a shoulder partner, I saw them shyly give an introduction to their writing but not before giving a disclaimer about how rough a draft it really is. I saw myself in them, afraid to let other English teachers see weakness. Feeling very much like my students when I ask them to put their writing into the world. But, at my request, they bravely shared parts of themselves with others in the room, gifting another with a piece of their souls.

And because of their bravery, I was able to newly meet teachers I’ve known for years. Because of their bravery, students can feel like equal partners in their writing journey, rather than pupils to a master. Because of their bravery, we have the gift of words.

Thank you to Sue and Katy for allowing me to publish your drafts!

Poem by Sue Penry

Poem by Katy Wheeler

Words are sacred. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones, in the right order, you can nudge the world a little.

~Tom Stoppard

–Bridget

2 thoughts on “Teaching writing starts with teachers writing

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