Becoming a Close Writer by Paula Bourque
To be a successful teacher of writing, teachers must write themselves. –Donald Graves
I have always written. I’ve kept a journal most of my life, I have multiple writers’ notebooks, and blog about my teaching and learning on a regular basis. But I hadn’t truly put myself through the same writing process I expected of my students until I signed a contract to write a book for Stenhouse. That was a game changer. I learned so much about the writing process, teaching pedagogy, and myself as a writer.
My journey as a writing teacher is a long one. During the past 29 years, I’ve been a classroom teacher, Reading Recovery teacher, literacy specialist, and instructional coach. I’ve dedicated my life to nurturing literate lives for our students. One way has been to network with other educators to share ideas and collaborate. It was just such an encounter with a colleague that started me on my latest journey. Jennifer Allen is a literacy coach in a nearby town, as well as an accomplished author for Stenhouse. We got together two years ago, and I shared my concerns about students who don’t closely read their own writing and my ideas for supporting them. She asked if I had considered writing about it, and would I mind if she shared my idea with Philippa Stratton. Of course, I didn’t mind, but I had no idea Philippa was the president of Stenhouse, and an editor would soon contact me to discuss my latest thinking.
That is when I met the best writing teacher of my life. Maureen Barbieri, an author, teacher, and editor liked my ideas and encouraged me to submit a proposal. I spent that entire summer vacation researching, writing, and revising that proposal. It was exhausting, and at times anguishing. I was filled with doubts. Who was I to teach so many talented teachers about writing? It was Maureen who encouraged me just to tell my story. I wasn’t writing a college textbook or dissertation on close reading in writing; I was sharing my ideas and experiences. I was telling my story, not the story.
I realized what Tom Newkirk said in his book Minds Made For Stories, was true for me. “We seek companionship of a narrator who maintains our attention, and perhaps affection. We are not made for objectivity and pure abstraction—for timelessness. We have ‘literary minds” that respond to plot, character, and details in all kind of writing. As humans, we must tell stories.” I wanted teachers to see themselves and their students in my stories. I wanted to bring the teaching and learning going on in my schools to life. I just needed to tell my story.
Once I submitted my proposal, I had to read and respond to reviewers hired by Stenhouse. That was tough. They pushed, challenged, and questioned my ideas. I had tremendous empathy for my student writers as I read these reviews! It was important not to be defensive, but to reflect and respond. Some of those comments were incredibly helpful, once I had time to digest them. I addressed the concerns and queries with my editor, and she presented my proposal to the editorial staff. Then I waited.
I was at my son’s soccer game when I got the email from Maureen titled “Congratulations!” To say I was excited would be an understatement. It was incredibly surreal. I was elated and yet a bit terrified. Now the real work would begin. I’d be putting a piece of myself out there for the world to examine-I needed it to be my very best.
During that writing year, I kept notebooks beside my bed as I woke with ideas swimming in my head. I would try things out in classrooms and see where that led. I would teach all day and write all evening (and weekends). I realized stamina wasn’t always steady. There were fits and starts and painful lulls. I began noticing what I was experiencing as a writer playing out more obviously in our writing workshops. I realized close reading was important to my writing, but so was some occasional distance. I talked to dozens of authors about their process and noticed many commonalities as well as idiosyncrasies. I saw firsthand that there is no one right way to be a writer and thought about those implications for my teaching.
The funny thing is, the story I started out to tell wasn’t the same one I finally told. Another belief I held as a writer became self-evident: Writing doesn’t just reflect thinking, it shapes thinking. The more I explored the idea of close writing with my teachers and students, the more questions I wondered, the more epiphanies I uncovered, and the more ideas evolved. My proposal centered around teaching students to closely read their writing, but developed into so much more. How could we help our students develop a relationship with their writing and explore their writing identities? Closely reading their work was just the first step.
All the while, my editor Maureen never told me what or how to write. She asked questions, reinforced what she thought was strong, reminded me of my focus, and shared her experiences. She let my story unfold, and we made discoveries together, just like the best writing teachers do. I was experiencing the writing process from both sides of the desk, and it was fascinating.
I also had to accept the concept that Writing is never done; it is only due. I had deadlines, the way our students do. Even on the day I handed over the manuscript, I was still exploring close writing ideas in our classrooms. That story is still growing.
I know many of you have stories to tell. Wonderful stories are unfolding in classrooms all across the world, waiting to be told. I encourage you to share them. Hone your craft as a writing teacher and walk the talk. Be a close writer! I am sure you will make discoveries on your journey the way I have. And you just never know where that journey will take you. I certainly didn’t.
Paula Bourque is a K-8 literacy coach in Augusta, Maine. She has been a classroom teacher, Reading Recovery teacher, literacy interventionist and adjunct professor in her 29 years in education. She is the author of Close Writing: Developing Purposeful Writers in Grades 2-6 (Stenhouse, 2016). She lives in Maine with her husband, two teens, and a houseful of pets. You can follow her blog at LitCoachLady.com or website at PaulaBourque.com.
GIVEAWAY INFORMATION (from Stacey):
This giveaway is for a copy of Close Writing: Developing Purposeful Writers in Grades 2 – 6. Many thanks to Stenhouse Publishers for donating a copy for one reader. For a chance to win this copy of Close Writing: Developing Purposeful Writers in Grades 2 – 6 please leave a comment about this post by Saturday, June 4th at 11:59 p.m. EDT. We’ll use a random number generator to pick the winners, whose names will be announced at the bottom of this post, by Monday, June 6th. Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so I can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. From there, my contact at Stenhouse will ship your book out to you. (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)
If you are the winner of the book, I will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – CLOSE WRITING. Please respond to my e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. Unfortunately, a new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.
Comments are now closed. Thank you to everyone who left a comment on this post. A random commenter number was used and bennisbuzz’s commenter number was selected so she’ll win a copy of Close Writing.