Sunday, March 12, 2017

Learning to Call Myself a Writer

Six years ago, if you had told me that I would be sharing my messy, work-in-progress writing with my seventh graders and listening as they gave me feedback, I would have laughed. Feedback? From my students? Who’s the teacher here?
But here I was, standing in front of 25 thirteen-year-olds, bemoaning the fact that the scene where my protagonist was supposed to meet a friend just wasn’t working.
I looked at my students. “I need some ideas. What do you think?” Hands started to raise, and conversations floated between writing partners as they excitedly discussed directions for my story. As students shared ideas, I furiously typed comments on to my manuscript, trying to capture all of the possibilities that came from the writers in the room. Later, I’d go back and rewrite the scene, weaving in Kate’s suggestion that my protagonist give herself a pep talk before meeting her new friend as well as Izzy’s idea that she should be writing in her journal, a character trait that was important to the storyline.
These days, I am intentional about using the word writers when referring to my students. This language makes it clear that, in this room, we write and learn together. Too often, the way writing is taught amplifies the division between the students and the teacher: one is there to teach, while the rest are there to be taught.
Six years ago, I did not call myself a writer. Sure, I wrote, but I wasn’t a writer.  Like many of our students, I associated the word with someone who had an agent, and who spent hours workshopping manuscripts to shop around to publishing companies. The word “writer” was reserved for the elite few...not for teachers like me.
This mindset is damaging. It is what made me spend the first few years of my teaching career turning to the comfort of pre-made graphic organizers and canned, prescriptive ways of teaching writing, turning the art of putting words on a page into a paint-by-numbers activity. It is what made me clutch my own writing close to my chest, scared to share it with my students for fear that they would see my imperfect words and declare me unfit to teach English. It is what ultimately made the teaching of writing that I did do inauthentic, unmemorable, and frankly, ineffective.
I am now comfortable calling myself a writer, both to my students and to myself. This bold statement is one that resonates with students. It dismantles the pedestal writing is often placed on, making it accessible and for anyone who has something to say. It gives students the confidence to say, “I, too, am a writer.”
This declaration has revolutionized how I approach the teaching of writing. The differences are subtle, but the effects are profound. When we began brainstorming ideas for our realistic fiction stories, instead of spending time searching the Internet for graphic organizers, I spent time brainstorming ideas for my own writing piece. I filled pages in my journal and paused to take note of my process. In class, I shared my approach and invited my students to experiment with different methods of discovering story ideas. As we began drafting our stories, predictably, we learned that the process of writing a story is anything but easy. We hit many snags: ideas that didn’t go anywhere, phrases that just wouldn’t sing, the long distance between what’s in the head and what ends up on the page.
In the past, when students struggled, I might have offered rubric-based feedback that emphasized my role as an evaluator. However, because I write, feedback looks less like an “I say, you do” process and more like a conversation between two people who are on a journey together. I am able to nod my head in solidarity when students describe a difficulty and say, “Oh, me too. I’ve had trouble with that before. Let’s figure this out together.” There is perhaps no phrase more powerful that a teacher can utter than when a student shares a struggle. Because I write, I can be empathetic, not just sympathetic. Telling my writers that I deal with the very same issues they do levels the playing field and allows both of us to put our heads together as fellow writers to determine a best course of action.
When we published our realistic fiction stories, the sense of pride was palpable. We took time to share our stories, savoring the chance to read each other’s words. In the past, I might have skipped this step, instead gathering up the stories to critique and grade. However, these days, my feedback looks different. Instead of dismissing a student’s writing because it suffers from structural difficulties or grammatical issues, because I write, I am able to look closer and mine the piece for what the student is doing well. I celebrate the process, not the product, because I know just how difficult it is to write. This nuanced view of writing delves deeper than cut-and-dried categorizations of writing into “good” and “bad” piles, and it is only possible because I have experienced firsthand how writing progresses and changes the more one works at it.
The truth about writing is that it is never finished. And we are never completely finished “becoming” writers, no matter how many years of practice we have or degrees we hold. Every time I pick up a pen, I remember that writing is hard. This knowledge follows me into the classroom when I watch my writers work to put words on the page and weaves itself into every interaction I have with them. In the classroom of a teacher who writes, writing is no longer a remote act reserved for the creative few. Writing is for everyone with something to say, and anyone who writes is a writer. A freeing truth for both students and teachers alike.

7 comments:

  1. So, so powerful, Katie! Because we are writers, we can empathize with our struggling writers. Showing them that we struggle too is what builds that bond as writers. I just love this! Sharing it on Twitter now!

    Jennifer

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  2. My favorite line (and there were many) "because I write, feedback looks less like an “I say, you do” process and more like a conversation between two people who are on a journey together". I wish THAT for every student!

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  3. This is a powerful piece of writing! You should consider submitting it to an NCTE journal! I loved this line especially: "It is what made me spend the first few years of my teaching career turning to the comfort of pre-made graphic organizers and canned, prescriptive ways of teaching writing, turning the art of putting words on a page into a paint-by-numbers activity" I think so many teachers relate to this.

    Have you connected with a National Writing Project site in your area? So much of your work reminds me of NWP philosophies!

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    1. Thank you! Yes, I am a proud NWP TC. This piece is actually a part of an article I was working on for submission to Voices From the Middle. I ended up cutting it completely but thought it was good enough to make it to the blog!

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  5. "Anyone who writes is a writer." Simple but important, this statement pulls down the curtain and reveals the simplicity and availability of the process. Thanks for sharing your ideas!

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  6. Thank you for your post! This is so powerful!

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