Writing Alongside Students
The term “workshop model” is one used in my school district at the moment to denote a classroom where something innovative is being piloted. My neighbor’s classroom is a place where new ideas are being shaped and tinkered with each day; I like the idea that there are little pedagogical laboratories being run all around me.
Particularly, the “workshop” classrooms are “writers’ workshops” geared toward increasing awareness of and exposure to the power of writing for students. One of the core ideas at play in these workshops is the idea of the teacher as a writer, as a model for students in a professional context. When they write, she writes. What they write, she attempts too.
When I consider the effect this has on students, it is nothing short of transformative. When students understand the purpose for something outside of an assignment, they tend to remember it better. When they see an adult attempting what they ask others to do, they are motivated to join in. Teachers of writing (and teachers who use writing, for that matter) have an obligation to consider themselves as writers and act as such in the classroom.
I do my best to communicate this ideal in my classroom. It can happen in a lot of different ways: sometimes I participate in freewriting in a desk alongside students, or do the bellwork prompt on the board just as a student would. Whatever takes place, I must be sure students understand that the writing being done is authentic and not just something to fill time or complete an assignment. They need to see a writer at work, in action, and understand the task at hand is attainable.
Writing Outside the Classroom
The next, and probably more difficult, part of modeling the behavior of a writer comes outside of your classroom and in your personal life. Being a writer doesn’t just mean having your name on the spine of a book, it means dedication to a routine craft and practice. Teachers who write make it a priority because they understand that it will positively affect their students ultimately. For the same reason that a track coach should be running 10k’s or marathons on the weekends, a teacher of writing should be involved in a regular practice of writing.
Does it always need to be public, published, or profound? No, certainly not. No matter how idealistic it may seem to “be a writer” as a teacher, we all have a million other things to do too which have a direct affect on our kids in school or on our families at home. The idea of the teacher as writer simply means that we acknowledge the extension of what we demand in class in our own life. If we’re going to successfully send the message that writing matters, that writing happens at all in real life, we had better get down to the business of doing it now and then.
What I Actually Write
I started writing a blog during my first year of teaching. It was an extension of the journal I was supposed to keep as a pre-service teacher. I moved from pen and paper at the desk next to my students to a digital dialogue box on Wordpress during that transition. I made a choice to keep a record of my experiences in a way that was open to critique and comment. I was not disappointed in the least.
While blogging year one, I found a whole host of supportive teachers online willing to dispense knowledge, lesson ideas, critical questions, and -- most needed of all -- emotional support and compliments. The act of writing for myself became something different than it ever had been for me as a student. I was used to writing papers, trying to publish a poem in the student journal and revering the idea of being a Writer. Now, I had a real purpose, a real audience, and an intrinsic motivation to say something on a regular basis. Nothing could be more helpful for a new teacher.
What my blogging led to was an understanding that being a reflective practitioner meant more than just listening hard during “evaluation time” and trying to make adjustments. Writing was -- to risk a cliché -- a window into my soul. I really became aware of what I was doing as a teacher in new ways as I wrote, shared, commented, and dialogued with others online.
Some of the best benefits of being an active writer came when I worked to pay it forward to other teacher bloggers. In my efforts to find help and start conversations about my teacher writing, I came across so many other writers who wanted similar feedback; thus, I sought to give to them what it was I wanted in return. As an active commenter, I became more mindful of how and when I shared my writing online. As I thought more about the audience for my own writing, I thought about my students in class as a new kind of audience for my teaching. Every word from my mouth became worth careful consideration and attention as I wrote the text of my classroom each day.
The Power of Writing
Beyond the intrinsic and personal values that being a teacher-writer provides, there are real world professional ones you should know about. As a direct result of the habits I built cultivating a blog and an authentic readership, I had new job opportunities open up: interviews and offers stemming from my digital writing presence and exposure. I became more inclined to seek out professional opportunities like through the National Writing Project’s Summer Institute program.
Beginning to see myself as a writer, and coming to understand that this wasn’t some magical and unreachable status, was a crucial step on my journey in teaching. I encourage you to start writing for yourself and share what you do with your students. You won’t be disappointed.