Writing, like life itself, is a voyage of discovery.
In the beginning…It’s important to begin to know who we are as writers! As we return to classrooms at summer’s end, think about your own writing identity as teacher writers. Writing to help us discover our identity as writers. The writing community needs a teacher who is willing to take risks and write in front of their students. The core belief we must articulate to our students, our colleagues, and to ourselves is that we are teachers of writers who write. Spandel tells us, “Almost nothing does more to sustain a culture of writing than a teacher who writes with students, thereby underscoring the importance of writing and allowing students to see the process – one writer’s version of it – as it unfolds.” (The Rights of Every Writer. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. 42-43).
We must commit to a writerly life to provide the high-quality support our students need to move forward as writers. Writing for our students allows us to make our thinking visible – to explain the thinking behind the choices that we make. When we write ourselves, we engage in the same struggles as our students, so we are better problem solvers and better at conferring and feedback. When students see teachers as fellow writers. They are more open to suggestions and more open to explain their thinking in greater detail. The conference is not teacher to student but writer to writer. According to Regie Routman: “Take the plunge: They will appreciate your risk taking, and you will have a much clearer idea of what you are actually asking them to do.” (Writing Essentials: Raising Expectationsand Result While Simplifying Teaching. 2005, 25).
When we write our own stories, poems, and memoirs and share them with our students, we learn to enjoy writing, and at the same time, we become more real to our students. Modeling must begin by sharing ourselves and what our interests are. We write to capture our lives, and that’s what our students need to see, how who we are translates into what we write. In Mentor Texts: Teaching Writing Through Children’s Literature (2017), co-author and PAWLP fellow Rose Cappelli and I explain that writing is not a spectator sport – you must jump in and play the game! We believe, “To treat our students like genuine authors, respect their abilities, and understand their struggles, we need to write so that we can call ourselves ‘author.’”
Throughout the school year I have the ability to push my students across that threshold on a regular basis. We visit the school library at least monthly and since I line my classroom walls with bookshelves, they literally walk into a library every school day. However, as the end of the school year looms, I grow increasingly concerned for their literary lives over the summer. To ease my worries, and to nudge students to cross that magic threshold on their own, I take the time to introduce my students to their local library.
On June 1st and 2nd, I had the opportunity to attend workshops facilitated by representatives of Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. There were a few other PAWLPers in attendance for one or both days – Liz Mathews, Tricia Ebarvia , and Brian Kelley. A group of us at PAWLP are in the midst of organizing a Social Justice/Anti-Bias Study Group, and much of what we learned and experienced will help us to move forward with our shared inquiry. I also reconnected with former grad students and colleagues, and got to know many new people as well.
“It’s not easy but everybody should be doing it.”
Demarest, A. (2016)
Open the classroom door . . .
I’ve been exploring place-based education for 35 years. Whether taking my high school students in New Mexico on field trips to White Sands National Monument to examine flora and fauna, to write about our observations, and to have fun – Or Fast forward to West Chester University campus where my freshman students and I explore campus through the lens of sustainability, I’ve been fortunate to learn from my students as we explore places and their complexities. A seemingly simple scavenger hunt on campus, reveals the kinds of health services available or not available to university students, a poem about the sighting of a hawk at the Gordon Natural Area (GNA) on campus inspired deep learning, engaged, and empowered beyond any packet, worksheet, or video.
However, reality means we cannot always open and walk out of the classroom or building, but we can investigate our building, the people, services, and environment in its immediate vicinity. We can invite the surrounding community into the classroom and if we are connected to the internet, we can research our communities and the world and engage and empower students with place-based learning.
Professional organizations like NCTE, ILA, PCTELA, and KSLA offer a yearly conference that takes place over several days and is usually packed with inspiring presentations and amazing authors. These conferences are tremendous opportunities to grow and learn in your teaching. I have attended many of these conferences and have been so awestruck by the presentations I’ve seen and people I’ve met.
There’s just one slight problem…..
They are expensive. And many districts cannot or will not provide funding to attend a national or state conference (particularly if it involves airfare).
A writer spends a lot of time at her desk, or in my case, her kitchen table. Staring at the screen or at a page of notes, drumming the keys of a laptop or i-pad. There are deadlines to meet. All writers have deadlines. Some of these are personal goals, and others are set by editors. Either way, writers write with a deadline in mind.
Equally important is the time that writers spend away from their desks. Writers need to spend time with their loved ones – children, grandchildren, spouses, and pets, visit friends and new places, eat out at a new restaurant, take in a movie or drive to NYC for an opera performance. Make the trip to the seashore to take a long walk on the beach and hear the ocean’s song, listen to music, plan parties, walk through their neighborhood to notice the signs of spring. The list is endless.
The point is, do stuff. The twenty hours you spend away from your computer are important. Take a summer writing course with PAWLP, go to a writers’ conference with SCBWI, take a workshop or unworkshop at Highlights Foundation in the Poconos. Join a local reading council or retired writers’ group.What about that painting or yoga class you’ve always wanted to take? Sign up for it today!