By the time this blog post goes live at 10 a.m., Ruth and I should have delivered our keynote addresses this morning at Penn State York’s Summer Writing Institute. By now we should each be leading our first of three breakout sessions of the day.
If you read the post I wrote about preparing to write and deliver today’s keynote, then you may have surmised it was challenging for me to write. I’ve done my fair share of presentations and consulting gigs, but I’ve never delivered a keynote speech prior to today. Preparing an inspirational (I hope it was!) talk that lasts for 45 minutes was a challenging task. It took several weeks to write it (i.e., outline and draft) and three more to revise and edit. Even though I wanted to put the speech to rest last week, there was part of me that just couldn’t. By this past Monday, I did my last revision, printed it off, and began reading it aloud only from paper. Writing this speech pushed me as a writer, which helped me to grow. (I will reflect on it more at a future point in time. Truth be told, I’m writing this post on Tuesday night, 6/25, for the purpose of it going live on the 27th. Therefore, it’s impossible to be reflective about something that hasn’t happened yet.)
Ruth and I were called to speak about “Teachers as Writers: Two Perspectives of How Writing Can Change Your Instruction.” Ruth told me to look for a thread through my piece. Through the drafting process (and thanks to this guest post by Ralph Fletcher) I did. Hence, I titled my portion of the keynote “Being a Writer: The Essential Element of Teaching Writing.”
I wanted to share a bit of my keynote, but seeing as it’s 22 pages, that’s way too much for an online forum. Therefore, I pulled three excerpts, some of which are longer than others, from my keynote.
Just as I went through a learning curve about the essential items I had to pack when I left the house with Isabelle, it took me awhile to figure out the essentials of teaching writing workshop well. In the beginning, I had to learn about the standards and what was expected of my students by the end of the year. Second, I had to learn how to plan backwards, keeping in mind the end-product for each unit of study. I had to learn how to write and deliver minilessons that were 10 – 15 minutes long. I had to master conferring with my kids so I could differentiate instruction. I also had to find a way to make writing matter to all of my students, even the ones who thought they didn’t have anything to say. That was the hardest thing, of all, to learn.
Over time, I became comfortable with the essentials of teaching writing. But there was one essential to teaching writing well that no one really told me about when I was a first year teacher. Just as a baby needs diapers, all writing teachers must have this essential in their bag of tricks since it’s just as important as delivering focused, explicit instruction during your lessons. In order to be effective teachers of writing, teachers must be writers themselves.
So, how do you go from being a teacher who writes to being a teacher who is also a Writer (again, with a big w)? First, I believe you have to figure out why you write. That is, what happens to you when you write and feel fulfilled after having written?
Here’s why I write:
I write in an insufficient attempt to live forever.
Besides a fear of pigeons, which is kind of funny, I have a fear of dying, which is not so funny. It’s not the kind of fear that paralyzes me, but it’s the kind of fear that made me sit down and write a long letter to my daughter in case I died during childbirth. I’ve gone to great lengths to write daily, on a private family blog, about my daughter’s life so the everyday stories of our lives together will last long after I do. I know I won’t live forever so I started writing a letter to my daughter each year on her birthday. Even after I’m gone, my words to her will live on and hopefully will be a gift to Isabelle on future birthdays when I’m no longer around to celebrate.
I write to find peace when the world is falling apart.
Ever since September 11th, I’ve used writing as a way to help me process the news of the day. I write after tornadoes and hurricanes to help me understand how people will have the strength to carry on after they’ve lost so much. I write about conflicts between people or cultures who are different, in a meager attempt to find the answers to complex problems. I write after school shootings to try to find answers, which I never do because those tragedies are senseless. Often I publish my writing on my blog so others can read and respond to what I’ve written. It’s a way of helping me realize there is goodness in the world, even when it feels like our world is shattered.
I write to create order.
Days can feel busy. There’s work, family, friends, religious obligations, and so much more. Sometimes life can feel overwhelming so I use writing as a way to tidy-up the world around me. I create lists. I send e-mails. I jot notes. I write whatever I need to write to help me create a sense of order in my personal life so my life is controlled chaos.
I write to have the last word.
My cousin once told me to take 24 hours after something happens to respond to a “situation.” He told me that nearly 20 years ago and it is sage advice I still follow. If someone does something to wrong me, I often turn to writing to make sense of it. I try to take their position in my writing, rather than just craft a rant, so I can examine the situation from their perspective. However, as someone who believes in preserving relationships and being respectful, I sometimes use writing, that stays on my hard drive and goes nowhere, as a way of having the last word.
I write to create a dialogue.
Whether it’s writing about books, parenting, or the teaching of writing, I share things I’m passionate about with others. Blogging has allowed me to put myself out there and get feedback on my thoughts. I love comments and delight in reading what other people have to say about things I have written, especially when it pushes my thinking on a topic.
I write for fun.
Writing has been a hobby for 30 years. The simple act of putting words on the page delights me. Whether it was crafting stories as a child, journaling as a college student, or writing poetry in my 30’s, I love working with words. I relish the moment I find the perfect word to describe something.
Sandra Cisneros said, “Write about what makes you different.” I don’t know about you, but it’s hard to write about the things that make me different. When I do I feel vulnerable, yet I know it’s what makes me quirky that makes my story unlike anyone else’s.
It’s hard to provide safe spaces for children to bring themselves to their writing. Too often, children get bullied for being different, weird, or worse. Writing workshop must be a safe haven where students feel comfortable bringing their true selves to the page. In order to allow young writers to appreciate all writing has to offer, we must let them know they must bring themselves into their writing so their writing holds meaning and value to them.
Tennessee Williams once said, “If the writing is honest it cannot be separated from the man who wrote it.” As teachers of writing, we must try to bring our truths to the page, even when it’s hard. While we don’t share things that are inappropriate for our students to know, I believe we must write from a place that shows our vulnerabilities so students will be willing to write candidly and share openly.
Even though I’ve been sharing my writing with my roomfuls of students and groups of teachers for awhile now, there are times I find it challenging to write from the heart. However, every time I push myself to write publicly about things that upset or challenge me, I always feel better after having written and shared those pieces of writing. Plus, I usually receive supportive responses from others when I write honestly and share publicly.
Many thanks to Linda Baie, Natasha Domina, Linda Schaefer, and Tara Smith who read my speech, offered me constructive criticism, and gave me advice. Thank you to those of you left comments on the post about how their instruction has been impacted by being a writer. Finally, a special thank you to those who gave me shout-outs on Facebook, Raising a Literate Human, and Twitter wishing me luck this week.
Literacy Consultant. Author. Former 4th and 5th Grade Classroom Teacher.