Sunday, June 9, 2013

How Writing Impacts Instruction

Last week, Stacey Schubitz of posed the question to her blogging community:


 I did not respond that day, as I have been swamped and exhausted. (What a cliche at this time of year!) Also, when I started to respond, I realized that this was a much bigger question for me than I could write in one sitting without mulling and thinking a lot! Since Tuesday, I have been thinking about this question almost whenever I have had a chance to think random thoughts. I will start by agreeing wholeheartedly with Elle, who wrote:

Katie Wood Ray is the person who helped me to understand just how important it was for teachers of writing to be writers. She said that you wouldn’t take your child to a dance teacher who couldn’t dance or to a piano teacher who couldn’t play the piano. She said that teachers have a job that is doubly hard. They need to know how to do the thing – whatever it is (in this case, writing) – and then they need to break it down and talk about the doing of it so that others can understand. She called to us to hop onto the smart train to learn to write or read or dance or play better so that we could be better teachers.
I find myself urging teachers to write alongside of kids. My own writing alongside of teachers gives me the understanding of the process, the failings, the triumphs of doing it. The power of the community, the need for feedback. The lifeblood of feedback. It makes me know that teachers can’t wait days to give back assessments. That students must feel the touch of their hand on their work each day in the feedback we give.

I was lucky enough to have a week with Katie Wood Ray many years ago as my first experience with workshop instruction--she gave a week-long workshop at Amherst College in the mid-nineties that still impacts my teaching life-- so I especially loved Elle's reference to her. I also couldn't agree more that teachers have to be writers with their students, just as athletic coaches have to be knowledgeable about their sport. My tennis coach would not have been able to teach me a serve if he was not able to break it down into small parts.

But there's more about being a writer that helps me teach when I am in classrooms.
  • I know that sometimes writing does not go the way that you plan or expect. Sometimes a piece takes a turn away from the preconceived path and a map or an  outline loses its effectiveness. While this is a problem for a prompt-oriented piece, some of my favorite work that I have done took me on an unexpected path. While I love to teach children about planning their writing, I also think that, especially for students who are more advanced writers, there will be times when discoveries about how stories should go will be made along the writing path. If, in my coaching life that doesn't give me my own set of daily students, I am lucky enough to meet with a student who discovers something about a character along the story's way or thinks of another reason to support a claim from writing about others, I would celebrate, and teach into how writers adjust and modify plans, sometimes.
  • Sometimes, it really is hard to think of what to write or how to start. Sometimes, ideas tangle and dance just out of reach and no matter how many starts and re-starts you take, those ideas just don't make sense out of your fingertips or off of your pencil. I am more empathetic to students when this happens to them, and I am a great believer in having sections of notebooks that are dedicated to potential ideas. (I've been needing this for blog posts, recently!)
  • Responding to the mechanics of my writing is much less important to me than responding to my writing as a reader. I want to know if what I write has an impact. Yes, of course I want readers to understand my work, but I want them to relate to my work and have a reaction that is not about grammar, spelling and punctuation. Do you like what I've written??? Have I convinced you or entertained you or informed you??? Those are the questions that I really matter to me. One time, I read a piece in my writing group that was full of emotion to me and at the end, one of the members told me that she wanted a little more description in the opening setting. This happened a while ago and I still remember the sadness I felt that the first response to an emotional piece was about the setting, even though I really do know that settings are important. As a teacher of writing, I try to always react to the content and the emotion in students' work before anything else, especially when a student has taken any sort of emotional risk.
  • Charts and checklists really do work for me when I am going back over a draft of writing. Just recently, I have used charts to remind me of transitional language when I was writing a mentor essay. I also appreciate the reminders that charts provide for story components and craft moves. I write a lot, but even still, I don't remember to include all that I should and these tools of the trade are really helpful. As a teacher, modeling how I use them and authentically using them really supports our students' paths toward agency and independence.
  • Having a writing life makes me a better participant in life. I pay attention more, ask more questions, wonder out loud, linger over interactions, make decisions to remember, appreciate the everyday humor, emotion and beauty that exist in my daily world. This is where I think that story-telling and morning meeting times when teachers and students really, really listen to each other talk about what has happened to them is so, so important. 
  • Having a writing life can also be distracting to my daily life. I find myself thinking about my writing when I wake up, when I'm walking, when I'm driving, when I'm cooking dinner--you get the idea... And when I am really involved in developing a piece, it's harder for me to generate energy for another. I have a lot of respect for my high school daughters who have to balance writing assignments across subjects, but I wonder about the passion and commitment that they have for any of their pieces.
  • When I am really involved in creating a story, I need to talk about it and create those characters, scenes and events so that they are almost as real in my physical life as they are in my mental life. When I am developing a claim, I make it much stronger when I can get people to debate with me and be on the hunt for clues that support or detract from my opinion. It amazes me how much is out there when you are looking for it!
Stacey's question distracted me this week and I am grateful for that. I also loved reading what others wrote! You can read more by following the link to the comments.

Enjoy the week,

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