“Write Beside Them,” said Penny Kittle. And so I did…
I teach writing and I also write. I used to think of those two identities as being completely separate. My teacher-self fashioned minilessons, conferred, and helped my kids examine mentor texts in order to learn how to become better writers. My writer-self noodled in notebooks, blogged, sketched out stories, and worked privately at the craft of writing. And, my students loved writing workshop, they did indeed become better writers, and I felt (generally) pretty pleased with myself as their workshop teacher.
Then, I read Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them. By chapter two (brilliantly titled: This I Believe), I found myself becoming rather uncomfortable, especially when I read the following lines:
“I now believe that you can’t teach writing well unless you write yourself….I believe you can’t tell kids how to write; you have to show them what writers do…. the instruction has to come during the process of creating the piece, not in polishing the product, or nothing changes. I believe you have to be a writer, no matter how stumbling and unformed that process is for you; it’s essential to your work as a teacher of writing… You are the most important writer in the room.”
Penny’s book made me realize those two identities (writing teacher/writer) were actually interconnected and also inter-dependent. It wasn’t enough to share mentor texts, to confer, to do all those other things that good writing teachers do – I needed to share my own writing life with my kids, and walk them through my thinking as I wrote.
So, I began to:
- model ways in which I collected writing ideas – heart maps, writing lists, and writing territories
- share the ways in which I brainstormed how to craft a writing piece from one of these ideas
- model strategies though which I could “show not tell”, convey my “so what?” and revise
My kids loved the fact I was a writer, too. They were intrigued by the topics I wrote about, and the reasons I chose to include this detail or that line of dialogue. And they were reassured by my presence as a writer in their classroom – that I would write with them, and that when they pulled up next to me for a conference, I’d share my own choices as a writer. It was great to see what Cynthia Rylant and Avi had managed to do in their mentor texts, but it was another thing entirely to see a messy notebook with arrows going here and there, words scratched out and words added in, and little drawings to inspire details and ideas. Our writing workshop became a more vibrant place, I believed, because I was doing what Penny had advised – I was writing, and I was showing.
Or was I?
In the back of my mind, though, I knew there was a missing piece: “the instruction has to come during the process of creating the piece, not in polishing the product, or nothing changes.” I was sharing bits and pieces of the process: the lead, the detail-stretching, the vocabulary enriching, etc., but never in a continuum – never a start to finish piece in which I went from seed idea to completed entry.
There were many reasons for this, foremost of which were:
- There was not enough time in the period (Is there ever, really??!!)
- Would I be stealing their writing time?
This school year, though, I thought the time had come to find a way to instruct “during the process of creating.” And here’s how that looked in my classroom:
First, I decided that this year I would dedicate a writer’s notebook just for my classroom use. I’d set aside the elegant one graced with the dancing lady from the summer institute at TC:
Next, I would brainstorm my evolving lists with my students, instead of sharing completed ones… showing them how I inserted ideas as events took place (as writers do), so that the “writing heart” for instance, is not just something lovely to create as an activity in the classroom, but a living writing tool:
And most importantly, I would take the time to create the piece, right there at the document camera, for my class to see. Our first experience went like this:
- I went to my heart map and talked through the process of choosing what to write about since this is something I know they struggle with, too.
- I shared the problems I had knowing how to start the piece, all the questions I had to ask myself first to get to the point when I could begin, and the way in which a quick sketch helped anchor my thinking:
- As I wrote, I thought aloud – ruminating over details, choosing words, getting up to sharpen my pencil and refocus my thinking, re-reading lines and words to make sure I was making sense and developing a narrative.
- I talked through the way I came to the ending – how I felt I knew that that was the spot to stop at… for now.
- I re-read what I’d written, and quickly jotted parts I knew I wanted to add to, revise, next time.
When we debriefed, my kids had so many interesting things to say: they saw their own writing struggles being played out, and my “talking it out” gave them insight into how they, too, can make decisions as writers. They liked the fact I sketched (Although the actual sketch make them giggle. I think they felt very sorry for my artistic abilities.), and they liked the fact I needed to think as I wrote – the words and their order don’t just flow out magically. They understood why I felt the need to re-read before I put the entry to rest. My ideas and the experience was fresh in my memory then, and they “got” why I needed to anchor any revision ideas right then with a sticky note.
All in all, the process took about 20 minutes. 20 well-spent minutes, from which I think my kids learned so much more than they could have had I shared just the polished product. And now we have a shared text that I can use for revision, in the process again. I feel, finally, that I have brought my writing-self to my teacher-of-writing-self, because, as Penny Kittle put it (so much better than I can):
“I believe writing with students will keep me teaching. It’s joyful work to shape my memories, ideas, and passions into texts I can learn and teach from. It makes me present in my work…”
Tara Smith teaches sixth grade in Glen Rock, New Jersey. When she is not teaching, she can most often be found reading or writing…and when she is not doing either she is most likely on the hunt for new books to read. Tara blogs about her experiences teaching reading workshop, writing workshop and social studies at A Teaching Life.