George Lucas Educational Foundation
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"Books will soon be obsolete in the schools. Our school system will be completely changed in 10 years." -- Thomas Edison, 1913

Sound familiar? Ninety-nine years later, we are hearing this nearly verbatim today. Educational technology is a wonderful addition to learning, and to our world, but it does not and will not replace the process of learning or the planning of teaching.

Technology will also never replace the need to be literate. Students will always need to be able to read and write. And it's essential that they are able to do both incredibly well.

How do we prepare our students for the critical literacy skills required in today's world? Although there's so much to say about this matter, there's one key aspect of it that's been close to my heart since I attended a National Writing Project workshop more than a dozen years ago:

To help our students become writers, we need to write side by side with them.

In our classrooms, as students are scratching away with their pencils brainstorming ideas, drafting on the computer, thumbing through a thesaurus, or reading a section of their essay aloud to a classmate, we need to be willing to do the same. We need to be willing to participate in writer's workshop with the children we teach. This sends an invaluable message to the young writers in the room. It says this:

I struggle too. I get tongue-tied and run out of things to say. I repeat myself and I forget words that I know I've used in the past. I sometimes change my mind halfway through a page, or even two, and want to start over with a new topic. Writing isn't always so easy!

Let's face it, for most children and many adults, writing can make us feel vulnerable (does this make sense? will people understand? I'm not sure I spelled that correctly?) When we write with our students and share with them our uncertainties about word-choice, a topic, or organization, won't they be much more willing to do the same?

Here's a couple of instances where I shared with my eleventh-grade students during writer's workshop:

  • Mistakenly, I received an automated ticket in the mail for driving in the carpool lane without a passenger. The ticket was an error (since I'd been teaching at the time of the incident). I wrote a letter to the traffic court. The students advised me that my tone was too harsh (I was angry!) I revised.
  • A poem I had written years before about my mother. Since it hadn't been titled, I never felt it was finished, only abandoned. They suggested numerous titles and then voted as a class on the most fitting.

Reading with students is just as important. The message this sends? I like to read. I don't just tell you this and grade you on how much you read, I read side by side with you. You see my facial expressions as I struggle to understand something difficult and you see when I feel emotion at a sad or funny part. I am a reader, too.

When we model for students our love -- and struggles -- as readers and writers, they will follow. The more our students fall in love with writing and reading, the more of it they will do. And as we know, practice can make us better at just about anything.

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Amy T's picture
Amy T
High school math teacher in North Carolina

I would love to see more math teachers understand the idea of allowing students to see them struggle. Sadly, too many have been teaching the same thing the same way for so long that they can work problems with their students (or should I say FOR their students) with no effort at all. I think this only perpetuates the sentiment that math is an elite subject for the gifted few and that it's ok to publicly declare "I'm not good at math" and never try to struggle through it. Our children see the teachers as experts and assume we have all the answers. I enjoy making mistakes on purpose with my students to encourage them to catch and help me fix my errors. They need to see more of us struggling with our subjects for it is only through our struggles/failures that we learn.

Thank you for a wonderful article!

ttwiley's picture
High school English teacher

For years I had my students write in journals, but sheepishly confessed to never writing one myself - no time, I said. The last three years I have been writing along with my students, and it has made a huge difference in how students value their journals. When I put my journal up on the whiteboard for comment and critique (I read everything they write and respond to their writings.), students ask all sorts of questions about what I have to say, but they also focus on how I say it. Someone always observes that some of my entries sound "just like you talk." There's the perfect momentt to teach about voice and tone in writing and that the word choices make a difference in what people perceive about another person's writing. Students seem to be more willing to take risks when I write along with them as well. Once I started my own journal, the whole assignment took on a new thrust for my students and for me.'s picture

You make an important point about being real when we write or model for students! How many times I've repeated your last sentence to teachers (as a reading coach)! Modeling is so important in ALL areas---which reminds me of a tidbit-story from a teacher-memoir I'm writing. I thought you might enjoy this fun tale about teacher modeling from one of the chapters:
"The new first grade teachers and I developed a close relationship that year. My room was conveniently near theirs, so scarcely a day went by when they didn't show up in my doorway with a quick question or some problem. These were topnotch people who wanted their teaching to be the best it could be.
A repeated scenario occurred. First, they'd tell me about a problem they were having, explaining how they'd made plans for a lesson and explained the task to their students; but when the students began the task, everything fell apart. Again and again, I responded with the same question, "Did you model what you wanted the kids to do?" Eventually, I would just stand there, smiling, and ask, "What am I going to say?"
And they'd respond, "Did I model it?" After we laughed, I'd usually offer to go in and help out with the modeling, which I figured was probably an ulterior motive all along.
But the scenario grew to be such a joke that they composed a small ditty, accompanied by a doorway disco dance, "Model, model, model! Did ya model, model, model?" Sometimes Leigh-Ann would just stop in the doorway without any question, just sing and shake a bit. It was always good for a giggle or two.
One morning I walked in and noticed a small package on my desk. Someone had taken pains with the wrapping, too, so I wondered what special day it was. When I opened it, I found an audiotape, which I dropped into my recorder. The first grade teachers had stayed after school the night before composing the lyrics to a funny little song they called, "Model! Model! Model!" and had taped it for me. It remained a source of humor for years."

Rena Mills-Little's picture
Rena Mills-Little
Ninth grade English teacher from North New Jersey

I found your blog to be full of valuable information. I have written with my students before, but I often feel shy and reluctant to share. Ironic, I know, considering how I expect them to always participate and share their personal thoughts! Tomorrow I am working on tone exercises with my students, so I will be sure to write my own passage demonstrating tone while they are working on theirs. Not only will they see me writing with them, but I will share my example with them so that they can learn from my example. Thanks for the ideas!

mollyt's picture

I definitely agree that regardless of how far technology continues to progress, reading and writing will always be a necessary skill in our society! Unfortunately it seems like a skill that is also falling by the wayside to a certain extent; although today's technologies have enhanced the classroom and students' learning experiences in countless ways, I have found spell check and grammar check to have become a bit of a crutch for many of my generation. It's encouraging that you've not only addressed the necessity of reading and writing literacy in today's world, but you've also addressed the need for teachers to approach its instruction with the same standards for both themselves and their students. As a student who once struggled with reading and writing comprehension to the point of extreme embarrassment I would have greatly appreciated knowing back then that reading and writing can be tough for everyone! Incorporating your own personal writing challenges in your classroom sounds like a great way to bridge the gap and allow students to become more comfortable with and open about their own writing struggles, and therefore more likely to reach out for help if they need it. Thanks so much for sharing!

I am Bullyproof -Lessia Bonn's picture

You are spot on!
My tween student, Madi, came in a while back all full of anger at this and that. I said "Madi, I'm so bored with your anger. I'm starting to believe it's just a bad habit you have-- always needing to be angry! You've got me snoring here, you're so predictable." She looked at me cross eyed.

I proceeded to tell her about the "monkey mind" and how we all sometimes have monkey visitors-- little monkey thoughts in our head that chatter on endlessly with blah blah blah this and blah blah blah that. I told Madi I guessed her own monkey liked to say things to her that made her angry and all shook up.

I am usually the songwriter in the room who writes SEL for the kids (with much input on their part. Yes, I have a VERY cool job) but what was so special about this particular lesson is that Madi listened intently, then came back a week later VERY excited, jumping up and down, in fact, with this announcement; "Lessia, I wrote a monkey song! You were so right! Now I'm not mad at all AND I have a song!" It was the first of many Madi songs. And from then on, whenever ever got even a wee bit upset, she wrote it all down in rhymes. This became her magic formula.

Maybe because I don't know how to be anything but an open book, I have ended up very interesting assortment of kids who turn most dilemmas into songs just like their teacher.

I don't believe we should ever let anyone get away with "People who can't do, teach." Nonsense. Kids need to see us do. And then do some more to inspire them, you're right.

And btw, when I teach singing? I never warm up. Once in a while I make sure the kids hear me squawk, then fix the problem in my own voice. Keeps them brave.

Thank you for this. It is very thoughtful and beautiful.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

@Lessia, that's a terrific story with some really wise bits thrown in. Thank you for sharing it.

Alex's picture

Hi all. I'm doing an action-research project on this very topic. My hypothesis is that by participating alonside students during the entire writing process, they will utlimately write better final drafts, specifically because of the modeling of editing drafts. Anyway, I will be doing this project for a Masters in Education and I will eventally have to do a literature review. Do any of you have any suggestions of any articles or books published on this topic? Thanks.

kbirk7797's picture

Great article - students definitely feel that connection with their teachers if they can observe them going through the process of writing, and other projects!

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