A New Way To Learn About Teaching Writing

It is the writer who might catch the imagination of young people, and plant a seed that will flower and come to fruition.
 – Isaac Asimov


I began a writer’s group last year at my school, opened it to anyone who was interested.  There are now seven of us. We continued to meet this summer and had the chance to go to different homes! We were never all together because of summer plans, but it was good to keep connecting.  The photos come from a recent meeting when we traveled far into the country to a group member’s farm.  It’s more difficult to travel there during a work week, but we had a wonderful time spending most of the day with her this time. We’re now committed to meeting once a month on Wednesdays from about 4:30 to mid-evening.

linda's group at her homeMostly everyone has met at my house because I live very close to school, but one member is also moving closer so we’ll now begin to alternate.  We’ve grappled with our procedure, and the busy-ness of our lives gets in the way sometimes, but generally speaking we’re all supposed to send something electronically a few days before so others can read ahead and have some general comments ready.  Each time we’re providing some kind of food to keep us going and wherever we are, others do contribute.  Working through dinnertime requires some kind of sustenance for sure.

Each person reads their writing aloud and most times asks for specific response as to clarity, word choice, appropriate for the intended audience, etc.  We are learning more about each other both personally and as writers because of the hours we’ve spent together, although some of us have been colleagues for years.  It feels so good to have a group for support, not only for our writing, but also in our lives!  There are all ages in the group, and various kinds of teachers, and all of us have at least some direct contact with students and writing.

I wrote a post about the group here, and have been asked to reflect upon group members’ thoughts about how being in the group will impact their teaching.  There are varied answers, and one thread that binds us is that we are all realizing the value of audience and response.  We believe it is important in several ways:

  • Knowing we will share motivates us to do our best possible writing while also realizing it remains rough draft work.  We don’t worry much about spelling or grammar unless it affects understanding, but we do bring clear goals for response so we can hear from fresh eyes if we’re on the right track.
  • Having a deadline makes us want to make good time for writing.  We are not dashing off things at the last minute. We know that we will be reading the piece aloud, and want to give our best effort so that we can get response for future drafts.
  • Hearing from several others who see our writing with “fresh” eyes is a new, sometimes scary, experience.  Others bring their connections and thoughts to us freely and often we come to new understandings of our own writing because of that.
  • We are learning how to be clear, knowledgeable and helpful in our comments for others’ writing.  We realize this is hard work, thus telling students to make ‘good’ comments in their own groups is not enough.  Students will need teaching and practice if we want them to help each other. We’re learning about different kinds of genres and for different audiences because we want to give good advice to the writer.

Other learning that connects directly to teaching is that we are all realizing how much time it takes to write, to consider new approaches because we’re shown new ideas from others and that revision is hard work.  When I’ve told students to make changes, even given them what I believe is sound advice, I’m not sure I’ve always thought about the challenges they face, and the time it will take.  One group member writes that she realizes that “working regularly with a group keeps (her) keenly aware of how important it is to keep a notebook of starters, ideas, snippets…(She) calls it ‘junk’”, and further says, “it’s good to have a drawer-ful of junk so that when we write, we just sift through the junk to find the ‘golden nuggets’.”

Most important here at the beginning of our school year, building trust and strong communities is our priority.  One of my writing colleagues says: “New writing groups for me (and starting the new year with a class) are about building trust. It is so difficult, indeed, almost impossible, for me to share anything that is not polished or perfected. I want group members to know me, understand me, and show me that they, too, are willing to share their imperfect work.”  Another writes: “I get inspiration from the writing group for new ways to approach these issues and support students through them.”

Finally, we are all learning that being in a group is helping to improve our writing!  We will now be able to share our writing life with students and tell our stories of the struggles, the anxiety of having no good ideas, and that the experience of re-looking at a piece we love so much from another perspective is hard, but worth it because we know we are improving.

Building a group takes commitment, and time, yet the payoff is huge: pride in our accomplishment because we do want to improve our own writing and pride that we have new tools in our teaching life to share with students.

foodHere is a final thought from another writer in the group: “The first hour is almost always spent diving deep into our days, the block of brie, and our journeys as writers. I have come to treasure this unique time to get to know my colleagues, who like me, rejoice, struggle, wonder, and giggle. Every writing group meeting gives me a chance to grow as a writer.  What I didn’t expect, and welcomed with open arms, were the chances to grow as a teacher – of writing, specifically, but a teacher in general. I have come to value the workshop model even more. I have also come to love the joys of someone enjoying your writing, the big gulps I take before I share my own writing or give feedback to someone else, the unimaginable pleasure of biting into a strawberry and hearing a delectable poem about peaches, the choice of words that I always learn from while giving feedback, and I have come to love the friendships that this group has gifted me.”

(I want to thank my colleagues for their thoughtful contributions to this post.  I value their writing and teaching, and it is a blessing to work with each one.)

Linda Baie is a long time teacher of middle school students at an independent school, recently moved into the part-time position of literacy coach for teachers of the 5-14 year-olds. She loves spending time with her grandchildren, one boy and two girls, and with her husband is retired. Passions are reading, writing  and sharing that excitement with teachers and students.  She also loves being outdoors, so it’s terrific that she lives in Denver near the Rockies.  She blogs at TeacherDance.