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Should Educators Be Writers?

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Last week, Donalyn Miller wrote a Nerdy Book Club post, entitled “Getting on the Bus.”  She wrote, “I am intolerant about teachers and librarians who don’t read. I recognize this failing, but I have seen the power that a teacher or librarian’s knowledge of books has for students and the lack of interest children have for reading when their teachers don’t know much about books.” Donalyn wrote passionately about the need for teachers and librarians to be readers themselves and to share that reading life with their students.  She issued a challenge for all of us in the “choir” she was preaching to, that we should have more conversations about helping other teachers to “get on the bus.”  She said, “It’s not enough to count our blessings when our own schools and the schools in our communities do more to engage teachers, children, and families with reading. Children’s reading lives should not depend on their luck in getting a teacher who knows about books or a school with a librarian. All children deserve these opportunities. Every year.”

Donalyn Miller’s post was one I couldn’t put out of my mind. I responded to it on my personal blog, Courage Doesn’t Always Roar, last week. Stacey Shubitz, TWT’s Chief of Operations and Lead Writer, commented on my post and asked, “How do we preach to those who aren’t writing daily to get them to be teachers who write?” Donalyn challenged us as readers, but now we were considering the idea of educators as writers, and the importance of that for students. How could we further spread the message, that being an educator who writes is important, beyond what we are already doing?

In an interview with Scholastic, Donald Graves was asked if he had to choose one thing teachers should do when teaching writing, what would it be? He answered, “Write yourself. Invite children to do something you’re already doing. If you’re not doing it, Hey, the kids say, I can’t wait to grow up and not have to write, like you. They know. And for the short term and the long term, you’ll be doing yourself a favor by writing. All of us need it as a survival tool in a very complex world. The wonderful thing about writing is that it separates the meaningless and the trivial from what is really important. So we need it for ourselves and then we need to invite children to do what we’re doing. You can’t ask someone to sing a duet with you until you know the tune yourself.”

Katie Wood Ray addresses the idea of teachers as writers in her book What You Know By Heart: How to Develop Curriculum for Your Writing Workshop. She states, “This is why so many of us try-at least once- the things we are asking students to do in our writing workshops. We live in the world as writers, searching for and capturing ideas for writing. We keep notebooks with these ideas in them. We take some of those ideas and grow them into something bigger that we eventually write for real audiences or for other reasons that matter to us. We draft, revise, and edit those pieces. We share them with others and deal with their feedback in our revision. We write in a variety of genres and forms. We write about the same topics in different ways. We give our writing away to others, finding out how scary that can be, and how joyous. Basically, we try to do for ourselves the things we are going to teach students how to do.”  Later, she writes, “We write so that we know what to teach about how this writing work gets done. We write so that we know what writers think about as they go through the process. We write so that our curriculum knowledge of the process of writing runs deep and true in our teaching. We write so that we can explain it all. (2002, 3)”

Yes, here at Two Writing Teachers, we write. We are a community that shares our Slices each Tuesday and all of March. Many of us blog at other times as well. Some of us are published authors of books. Some of us have spent summers with local sites of the National Writing Project, giving up weeks of summer freedom to explore what it means to be a writer. We keep notebooks and have special pens and give our writing as gifts. We share our writing with our students.  But are we representative of most educators? Do most students learn to write from a teacher who regularly engages in writing? Do most schools promote the importance of educators writing?

This is a multifaceted topic with no simple solutions. I have many questions around this issue, including:

  • Does the education community believe that teachers of writing should write themselves? If so, why should they write? 
  • Is it important that administrators and instructional coaches also be writers themselves and share that with teachers and students?
  • Is the experience different for a student learning from a teacher who writes, as opposed to learning from a teacher who never writes? In what ways? Is there research that proves this?
  • Would having teachers who write more themselves increase students’ growth as writers?
  • Many passionate teachers readily call themselves readers but avoid identifying themselves as writers. Why are teachers more reluctant to take on the identity of “writer”?
  • What are the roadblocks or obstacles that prevent teachers from writing?
  • What has to change in schools for teachers to grow as both readers and writers themselves?
  • How might a school culture change if teachers wrote more often and shared that writing with their students?
  • If we believe that teachers should write, and would lead to increased student achievement, then why aren’t schools making time for that, having conversations around that, building time into the calendar for that endeavor?
  •  As the passionate choir here at Two Writing Teachers, do we have a responsibility to share what we know and believe about being writers to colleagues who are not writing?

If you are interested in this conversation, I would love to explore this idea more with you in a Two Writing Teachers Voxer group.  Our group will share thoughts and ideas around this topic, with the goal of coming up with ideas to promote the notion that teachers who teach writing should write themselves.  If you sign up for the Voxer group, you are granting permission for your ideas to be shared in a future Two Writing Teachers blog post about this topic.  Please click here to fill out the form and join this conversation through Voxer.

Educators- to write or not to write? That is the question, and here at Two Writing Teachers, we would confidently state our answer. We firmly and passionately believe teachers should write.  We believe students benefit when they are led by a teacher who writes. We have a feeling you agree, but what about your colleagues and administrators who might not be as certain? How can we be the writing ambassadors in our schools and communities? We look forward to the conversation!

Some resources supporting teachers as writers:

 

 

 

32 thoughts on “Should Educators Be Writers? Leave a comment

  1. I was saving this post to read later and finally found the time to do that. I just signed up for the Voxer group. I can’t wait to continue this conversation. I proudly and publicly identify myself as an avid reader, but I hesitate to say I am a writer. Writers are published authors, right?

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  2. Kathleen! What a great conversation. To those of us who do write and teach and work with teachers, it’s just so obvious, right? But teachers, I find are fearful. They hate to fail, in any way, in front of their kids. But after a lifetime, or so it seems, of living in the classroom, my greatest take away was–let the chinks in the wall GLOW! Being human brings laughter, brings fun, and shows kids a whole lot more than any polished piece we might read! Thank you for this wonderful post!

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  3. Kathleen, Kudos to you for opening up such a sensitive topic: teachers who don’t read or write. Personally, I didn’t feel I was authentic as a teacher until I began to write. I had reading under control…I’ve been reading voraciously since I was a child. As the oldest of 8 children, I needed someplace to go to escape the crowd and have some private time. But writing didn’t happen until much later…real writing didn’t happen until grad school when I had some interesting teachers who provoked me to write. I have found that I learn what I am thinking by writing, and that writing changes my thinking by making it clearer and more precise…and even richer. It’s easy to just stand in front of a class and spout information and instructions, but’s it’s another thing altogether to write about the same ideas for an audience of readers. Then you must truly become accountable for what you are thinking and saying. Yes, this does take time and work but it is the responsibility of every person who considers him/herself to be an educator to do this work!

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  4. Wonderful reminder that we must share what we value with our students. If we read, they will read. If we write, they will write. As teachers, we are in a unique position to instill a love of literacy. Yes, it is our job, but it is also our privilege. Thanks for this valuable post!

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  5. This is a post that makes my heart sing! How can you, as an educator, join in the critical conversations that surround writing unless you bring something with you? When you are a writer yourself, you understand the struggle, the challenge and the joy. Let’s all continue to shout these writing truths from the rooftops. Our student writers deserve teachers who themselves are brave writers- and readers. Wonderful to read. I will share this post far and wide.

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  6. This is a dialogue we have begun in our ELA committee and even there we have diverse beliefs. I KNOW I am a better teacher of writing when I write and am trying to find ways to write in the edges as I have added more reading to my daily routines in this same way. I look forward to continuing to think about ways to improve this in my own practice (and thank you for the links and provocations).

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  7. I love everything about this post. I didn’t become a writing teacher who writes until I participated in the Columbus Area Writing Project, an affiliation of the National Writing Project. It was hands down the best PD I’ve ever received, and it changed my life and my teaching. There is a lot of power in being a member of the writing community that makes up my classroom. I’ve also made many friends and learn so much from them through my writing. I’m looking forward to the discussion!

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  8. Thank you all for your rich comments and willingness to dive into the topic of educators as writers! Our Voxer group is already having amazing discussions and thinking of ideas. One idea from Dana Kramaroff speaks to those baby steps Katie asked about. Dana suggested we write one post-it a day and share it on social media with the #EDtime2wrt (educators time to write). Some of us already gave it a go today! Please feel free to share this with your colleagues and any educator who might want to make writing a habit. I’m really excited by the passion and ideas being shared around this topic! Looking forward to carrying forward our message of the importance of writing!

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  9. Terrific post, wise words, and wise comments from everyone. I have no new things to add really. I’m not teaching this year, but all the years I taught, I wrote with my students. We were in it together always. I shared what challenged me, how I took a next step, they critiqued me and gave advice. We learned together. I can’t imagine how a teacher can give an assignment and evaluate it if he or she has not at least made an attempt at that same kind of writing. Michelle Haseltine gave the analogy so well about the piano teacher.

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  10. Kathleen, your questions are an excellent place to begin. I plan to print this post, and all the comments out, and place it where I can roll these ideas around. I am thrilled to participate in the Voxer chat, and I LOVE the sticky-note initiative. I’m on board! You have continually helped me to grow as a writer and a teacher of writing.

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  11. Wonderful post, Kathy! It’s surprising to me that teachers who ask their students to write don’t just write with them. When I began teaching, I heard a teacher telling his class to take out their journals and write, and then demanded quiet as he took attendance and did various teaching chores. It made it seem like writing was such a drudgery. If you allow yourself the freedom to maybe take attendance later, and just sit and write with your students, what a luxury! I would lose myself in my thoughts as I wrote. I would be surprised at how my writing did become an act of discovery. When we finished, I would ask them, how many students actually left the classroom in their thoughts? How many were surprised at what they wrote? Because I was in that writing moment. I, too, faced some difficulties as my students did or felt the excitement of finding the right words. How thrilling it is to be in that writing moment with your students. I taught 8th graders for years and years. Last semester, I taught writing to remedial students at a community college. It was a similar process in this new setting. I gave an assignment to read an article and use quotes to back up their opinion on an issue. This one assignment was really challenging, for me too. It was essential that I knew what my students experienced, and we chatted about how difficult it was. They shared, and I shared. It’s a struggle and a process, and it can be terrifying and wonderful. Some days you’ve got it, and some days you don’t. Students need to see that.

    One of my favorite lessons in teaching writing comes from Donald Graves. He talked about brainstorming on a topic and modeling for students how you come to write a personal narrative, how you make your list in front of the students of all the ideas you wish to put into the piece. Students need to see teachers’ authentic processes. If we believe in the power of writing, we must live it. It shouldn’t take tons of extra time.

    One article I love on this topic is by Cindy O’Donnell-Allen from the National Writing Project. Check out “The Best Writing Teachers are Writers Themselves” in the Atlantic, 2012.

    Thanks again, Kathy, for your great ideas and inspiration! You’re a gem.

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  12. I’m always reminded of a favorite quote of Dr. Mary Howard (#G2Great), “What can we say, ‘No’ to, in order to say ‘YES’ to writing? IF it’s important we will make time. But there’s always that little bit of fear of “what if I let go of the wrong thing?” that goes with making sure that we are teaching the writer not the piece of writing! Such an important distinction.

    I see so many student papers that are “red inked” or even “purple inked”. . . where is the student learning?

    Exciting topic for a Voxer group!

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  13. All of us raised beside the wise teaching of Don Graves share the same belief as central to teaching writing: you have to be in the game. Don Murray said you must have recent experience in writing why you ask students to write or you simply have no idea what and how to teach.

    This is not about guilt– it is our job. Lester Laminack said teachers ask him, “What should I do if I’m not good at read aloud?” Lester said, “Practice. Get good at it. It’s your job.”

    That being said, you don’t have to share– at least at first– but your teaching will be immeasurably and permanently better once you start showing how you write and writing beside your students. And they will love watching you work. There is joy in that struggling together– worth it. Energy-giving Joy.

    Great post! 🙂

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  14. So much to think about. Teachers as readers empower students to be readers, teachers as writers empower students to be writers. I was drawn to reading at a very young age and reading to my kinders was my favorite “lesson” of the day. I wrote all through school, mostly as have “to.” But a few years ago discovered the powerful reflections and learning in writing on my blog. And while still in the classroom I shared this with my students. We wrote everyday, either in structured or unstructured lessons, as we captioned our art or on our class Twitter account. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and questions.

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  15. Yes! Teachers should read and write. About what they love, what they see, what they hear, what they taste, what they touch. Without it, self-reflection is minimized AND those outside of education have little idea of what goes on.

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  16. I love this discussion. I have always believed my students love to read and write because I love to read and write. I breath it. They know it. My writing doesn’t always have to happen at school. I will tell my classes (6th, then 5th for 12 years, now 1st!) I have an idea forming–mulling–and then share it with them when I’m done. We talk constantly about how poems are hiding everywhere! I share my sloppy copies–and show the parts where I had trouble coming up with the right word. I ask them for their help. Last week, two small groups finished short stories (DRA 8-10) that obviously didn’t have excellent endings. So we all wrote a few more sentences to bring them to a close. I was excited to write my own and share along with them. It doesn’t have to take a lot of time, it all about sharing one’s passion for words. My 5th graders have said before they are so glad to have spent the year with a teacher who loves to write. My passion results in great animation from me on these topics–and it is contagious for sure. Teachers who don’t exhibit passion for words in all shapes and forms are doing their students a great disservice.

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  17. Many times it can be overwhelming to put our thoughts on paper because we are afraid of being ridiculed by others who see us as a nuaiance because we think writing is SO important. I’m thinking that a Teacher Writing Gallery is a great place to start.

    It’s not always easy to share our writing with others, however, I find it to be a intrical component of writing instruction to share my writing with my babies. They need to see and hear every bit of the writing process for each piece that they are asked to produced. How else can our community grow?

    I support you and have already filled out my Voxee discussion form! Woot-Woot, Kathleen!! You always pump me up!

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    • Terrie,
      I have heard many times writing is brave and as I read Kathleen’s thought provoking post and browsed the substantial resources this thought kept coming to me. Yes, teachers are busy. We are busy because we want to be the best we can for our kids. I believe teachers are working with their best intentions to be better, to be what their kids needs. I also believe not all teachers have experienced the value of being a teacher who writes. Then I’m back to writing is brave-

      Writing is personal when we write we give an intimate part of ourselves. We have to dare to be vulnerable and in a profession that is so publicly criticized and our best is never enough this is terrifying. Not only in exposing ourselves but also wondering, will my writing compare to the writing out there. With every post, parent letter or comment I compose I experience this fear. Is it that teachers lack the confidence to write?
      Could the Teachers Write Gallery be just the place to allow all levels of writers to feel brave and to allow their thoughts to assemble on paper?

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  18. It’s a good discussion. I know teachers are busy, but I guess I come at it from a different perspective. This is where I need to spend my time as a teacher. It’s more valuable to write with them and in front of them than it is to spend hours writing comments on their writing…which many students do not read anyway. It’s scary. It’s hard, but I return to the analogy of a music teacher. I’d never send my kid to a piano teacher who doesn’t play. I don’t think it’s about…”there’s not enough time”, I think it’s about prioritizing.

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    • Michelle, you raise some excellent points- it was worth reading twice! 🙂 I love the analogy to a piano teacher who doesn’t play. Powerful. Time is our enemy so we have to be very purposeful about how we spend it, what we value, and what is going to make a difference for students. I hope you will be part of this conversation on voxer because your voice is an important one! You walk the walk.

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  19. It’s a good discussion. I know teachers are busy, but I guess I come at it from a different perspective. This is where I need to spend my time as a teacher. It’s more valuable to write with them and in front of them than it is to spend hours writing comments on their writing…which many students do not read anyway. It’s scary. It’s hard, but I return to the analogy of a music teacher. I’d never send my kid to a piano teacher who doesn’t play. I don’t think it’s about…”there’s not enough time”, I think it’s about prioritizing. Signing up for the Voxer group now..

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  20. Thank you, Lisa, for your comment! I wouldn’t want to put any teacher on a guilt trip, either. I actually signed up for a group run by Angela Watson on learning how to manage my time better as a teacher because I often feel like I need to work around the clock and it all doesn’t get done. There are over 1,000 teachers paying money to be part of this group and learn to manage our time better! Truly the teacher workload has become unmanageable in many ways. I think this is a conversation of what we value and what leads to better, richer teaching. If teachers are maxed out and have no time for building their own reading and writing lives, how does that impact students? I also think writing is a more complex title for teachers to grab hold of- when Donalyn suggested teachers should read more, I didn’t hear many people saying that it was a burden for teachers to do that or how would they find the time? But writing is a different story. It’s a really interesting issue to contemplate! Really looking forward to the discussion!

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  21. Fantastic post Kathleen. I’m going to share it with my district and the Maine Writing Project. I see your writing getting richer with every blog post. You are a testament and inspiration to teachers who write. Thank you.

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    • Thank you so much Kim! That really means a lot to me. I was thinking of you a lot writing this post. I think the presentation you have on your website about teachers writing is incredible and would be important to share in this discussion! Look forward to collaborating with you on the idea of teachers writing and continuing the conversations we’ve started together. 🙂

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  22. Kathleen – I signed up for the Voxer group and am looking forward to the conversation. I participated in Teachers Write this summer with Kate Messner. I definitely understand the importance of writing – doing what we ask our students to do, but I have such a hard time sticking with it. I don’t think any other teachers at my school write either. Thanks so much for putting this together. I know I’ll learn so much from the group – as I always do.
    Janie

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  23. I did sign up for the Voxer conversation, but I’m not able to record write now. With each passing year, I write more with my students. I keep a notebook and write with them in response to poems and other prompts. I shared letters that I had written to our congressional representatives and the local newspaper. I shared little things I wrote about my children and several “This I Believe” essays. This year, for the first time, I actually brought a piece to a finished stage and published it on a friend’s blog. Sharing my experiences with this seemed to be valuable and to give me more credibility with my students. I would be very interested in discussing the question of how the student’s experience is different with a teacher who writes and if there is any research about that.

    It is my choice to write and it feeds me as a teacher. I can’t even envision suggesting this, though, to many of my colleagues. My life is very different from theirs. My kids are mostly grown, my house has the occasional quiet moment. If I had three kids under ten, or was coaching or tending bar to make ends meet or was in the process of a messy divorce or well… you get the idea. I’m not sure how much writing I would be doing.

    What kind of baby steps are helpful and not intimidating to teachers who are already feeling overwhelmed?

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    • Thank you so much, Katie, for your comment. I am so glad you will be joining the discussion! I am currently a classroom teacher too with a 5 year old son and an almost 3 year old daughter. I know my colleagues are very overwhelmed, as I am too! I would never want to place another demand on teachers, either. I think systemically things have to shift and time has to be given or compensated for teachers who want to grow as writers so they can help their students grow as writers. In Katie Wood Ray’s book, she says you would need only go through the writing process for a time and then that body of work and your reflections on living as a writer could inform your instruction for years. That is a possibility too- perhaps focused time on writing for a short time if it’s not something you can sustain in the season of your life that you are currently in. With this post, I hoped to open the conversation to what we as an education community feel about the value of teachers writing. If we do value it, then how can we make it happen in more realistic, helpful ways for teachers who aren’t writing? I think your question- “What kind of baby steps are helpful and not intimidating to teachers who are already feeling overwhelmed?” is a key one for us to consider in our discussion. I’ll also add that as a teacher who has felt overwhelmed and felt at times that my voice doesn’t mean much, writing has given me an outlet to grow professionally and deal with some of those frustrations so many of us feel. Thank you!

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      • Well said! The teachers at my school work round the clock, reading and responding to their students’ writing. I can’t imagine putting any of them on a guilt trip for not doing more! I believe many of them would love to write, however, when you’re already working weekends and holidays to correct student work, when does one find the time?

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