After completing my work in Lit Lab with Cris and Sam, I began the 2015 -2016 school year dedicated to my professional commitment to stay up on current research in education. I was the last human on earth to find Twitter and podcasts but I quickly learned these were quick and easy opportunities for me to see into the minds of experts who I otherwise would have no access. Through Twitter feeds and podcasts, fellow teachers and instructional coaches have helped me to think deeply about my practices and my responsibility to participate in our profession, through thinking, through Tweeting, through talking, and through writing.
After Donalyn Miller posted a particularly thought provoking essay on Nerdy Book Club entitled “Getting on the Bus”, I was engrossed in the responses via Twitter. One response really struck me and it was from Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski at Two Writing Teachers. She asked several questions about teacher writers but here is one that pushed me to get online, buy a domain name, and start writing.
“Is the experience different for a student learning from a teacher who writes, as opposed to learning form a teacher who never writes? In what ways?”
The difference, for me, between students who learn to write from a teacher who writes versus a teacher who does not write is the teachers ability to review student writing with humility. When I began my work with Sam, she told me that before I could give my students an assignment, I needed to first do the assignment myself. I clung to every piece of advice Sam gave me so I quickly got to work. When the time came for kids to get to work in class, because I had done the assignment, I didn’t ever scoff at their struggle because it had also been my struggle. I never once thought, “When I was in high school, this would have been so easy” because I wasn’t relying on my memories from over a decade ago. I was recalling my experience writing a few weeks ago and I remembered how hard it was to get started, or to cut that sentence that I loved but knew it didn’t fit, or find the word that I was looking for that truly expressed what I was trying to say. I met kids where they were because it was where I had been. Too often I hear teachers recalling a time in their past when they too had to write and they received praise and accolades for said assignment. Although I believe many of my colleagues are great writers, I doubt that these assignments were completed without struggle. I think we forget the struggle when we aren’t inundated in the process and this disconnects us from our students.
In addition to approaching my students with humility, I am able to more intentionally plan for them. When I sit down to do the work, I see more clearly what students need from me to successfully complete the upcoming assignment – a lesson in transitions, in active voice, in using strong verbs, in playing with punctuation, in sentence structure.
Prior to being asked to do my own assignments – which has been a life changing professional practice – I thought I was able to help kids write because I was their English teacher, because I had written oh so many essays when I was their age, and when I was in college, and when I was in grad school, successfully. The thing is that isn’t the message I want my students to receive from me. I want my students to know that I am qualified to be their writing teacher and sit beside them while they transform their brilliant thinking into brilliant pieces of writing because I, too, write. Because the struggle is real for me; to get started, to maintain focus, to find what I care about, to find my voice.
So the continuing struggle for me is this: How do I continue writing beyond my own assignments? First, I can start listening for the questions posed of the educators around me; both in my building and in my online community andrespond to them. I can collect questions and determine which one I deem the juiciest and worthy of my time and I can craft responses. I don’t have to wait for someone to tell me, this is the question that needs answering, regardless of your interest in it. Second, I can start generating my own questions. Kelly Gallagher recently asked, via Twitter, “What percentage of student writing is dictated by teacher questions? What percentage of your students’ writing is self-generated?” At this point, almost 100% of my studens’ writing is dictated by my questions and that largely reflects my need to write to a prompt. Just like my students, I am a product of the education system and have rarely written to a question of my own asking. So now I need to look for questions, ask my own questions, figure out what I care about and get writing!