Teaching writing starts with teachers writing

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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


I See You, Mama.

I see you, Mama.

I see the way your arms tremble with fear and pride as your baby is placed into your arms for the very first time, the weight of joy and responsibility heavy in your new mommy heart. Yearning for the moments before birth when he was just yours. How will you keep him safe always? How can you love something so much? I see you, Mama.

I see the tears gather in your eyes as exhaustion overwhelms you. When you think you can’t possibly go on this way, rising every hour through the night, cleaning the neverending stretch of baby supplies and clothes and blowouts and vomit and slobber, but not yourself. I see you, Mama.

I see you peeking at your baby’s fluttering breath throughout the night. “Sleep when he sleeps,” they say. Instead, you spend your night praying that the next breath comes just as strong as the last one, trying to close your eyes for just one minute, but unable to breathe until you know he has. I see you, Mama.

I see you as you try to remember who you were before you became a mom. As you make room for yourself amidst the demands of motherhood so that you can better meet your family’s needs, so you can recognize your face in the mirror. As you find something that’s only for you. I see you, Mama.

I see you collapse into bed at night, praying he falls asleep easily so you can too. Grazing your fingers through his baby-soft hair, you are struck with wanting to squeeze him awake again, so you don’t miss one more minute with him. I see you, Mama.

I see you desperately clutching his tiny hand as you walk him into school for the first time, choking back the tears of uncertainty and sadness. Remembering how his tiny baby fists and his tiny baby face tucked under your neck at naptime. Knowing you’d endure a few more sleepless nights if he were that small once again. I see you, Mama.

I see the way you love both your job and motherhood, struggling to be good at both but often times failing to meet your own expectations. Forgetting to submit the proposal for the next day’s meeting or forgetting to make cupcakes for his Valentine’s Day party, you are ever-ready with criticism of yourself. Give yourself grace. I see you, Mama.

I see you struggle to understand how other kids and people wouldn’t be kind to your sweet baby. I see you aching at the ugliness of this world and wishing you could shield him from ever having to face any of it, fighting the mama-bear urge to make everyone who’s ever hurt him pay for his pain. I see you, Mama.

I see the way you cackle with uninhibited glee at his silliness. The way you can’t help but kiss his adorable face and hug his adorable neck. Surely, there’s never been a funnier kid in the history of kids. I see you, Mama.

I see you lace up his Nikes as he gears up for his big game, hoping he remembers to have fun while on the field–that win or lose, he is still amazing. I see you cheering in the stands, wearing your “Team Mom” regalia. Some ridiculous and obscene color picked from the color wheel covers you from head to toe, noisemakers at the ready. I see you, Mama.

I see you watch him struggle as he faces immense adversity, wishing you could steal his pain and frustration, even if only for a moment. If only he knew what you knew: he is tough, he is strong, he will get through this. He will survive and be better for his struggle. I see you, Mama.

I see you drop car keys into his outstretched palm. To him, you are “Mom” with an accompanying eye-roll, worrying again for no reason. To you, he is still the greatest love you’ve ever known, and the fear of this moment is almost crippling. You spend that night–and every night that follows–praying he comes back home. Maybe you should buy him a Hummer after all. I see you, Mama.

I see the way you cry into your pillow his first night away at college. And the second. And the third. And many nights after. You send desperate prayers up that he is making good decisions, that he’s safe. That everything you’ve taught him aids him in reaching his goals and living his dreams. You hope he’s unafraid. You hope he takes risks. You hope he makes mistakes. You hope he learns from those mistakes. I see you, Mama.

I see you squeezing his arm on his wedding day, willing yourself to share him with someone else. You pray for their happiness and kindness, that they remember life is about more than making money. It’s about dancing in the rain and doing movie nights and cooking terrible and yummy dinners and reading books and playing board games. You pray he will still come eat waffles and bacon at your house. I see you, Mama.


I see you.

An important aspect of teaching writing is to teach students how to imitate beautiful writing and make it their own. This art of play and practice with language is an important step in our students achieving effective writing independence. Like watching a favorite basketball player and emulating their “moves,” we want students to find the “moves” they like and play with them in their writing. Through observation and analysis of mentor texts, we teach our students to mimic elements of great writing and use it in their own writing to develop their identities.

In reading a viral post on Facebook about motherhood called “I Cry Because…” (post no longer available to share here), I became inspired to talk about the wonderful stress of being a mommy in a similar way. Each of the statements above was written through my own personal experience or through knowing incredibly strong moms that have inspired me in their own unique ways. 

I know we are all in different stages and moments of motherhood, but we must learn to see each other. And allow ourselves to be seen.