George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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.

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Ellen Z.'s picture
Ellen Z.
Reading Specialist from Hellertown, PA

Steve, that is so true. If students see that you write, it really inspires them. I have four children ages 7, 8, 11, and 13. Last year I wrote my very first book of sorts, an Instructor's Manual for a College Reading textbook. My kids were writing a storm, since they saw mommy writing so much. During the summer, we discovered a creative writing website which they really enjoyed called Cubert's Cube. Since they all had the writing bug, they enjoyed writing interactively on this website which lets kids collaborate with each other on one story if they wish too. There is also a "gallery" section which allows the children to upload pictures or draw them to illustrate a story, and if they cannot think of what to write, they can click the interactive story starters. There are ideas for teachers on the website and it is very user friendly and secure. Check it out if you get the chance!

TODD SENTELL's picture
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"

I got a bunch of unmotivated and uninterested and nearly illiterate kids to write stories and essays. To write something every week by Friday. I sure did.

I told them I borrowed this one from the working world, especially the newspaper news room. Every Monday the kids got a fun subject to write about, a low word count, the opportunity to be edited by me, and then I would read their work, out loud, in my goofy announcer voices, to everybody else every Friday. My God, did it work.

The first couple of Fridays were horrifying to the students, but then they finally got whacked each week by a sense of pride and Fridays became the most looked-forward-to day of the week. Not because it was the last day of the week. It became the proudest day of the week because they learned that hard work and a dedicated routine always has a payoff. When you see emotionally fragile kids pat each other on the back--literally pat each other on the back--because they liked each other's stories, it's hard not to get teary-eyed right in front of them. Every Friday.

Teresa Stoddard's picture

Supporting student writing in classes has help me become a better writer. Now I keep my writing skills polished by commenting on articles connected to my teaching content. Reading the articles and sharing my feedback strengthens my content knowledge and allows me to model writing. My students get to see writing in a real world setting.

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