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This Is the Year I’m Going to Write Alongside My Students

“Hey there, come on in! I’m Tim.” Nervously, I shook hands with the man who looked to be around twenty or so, his blond hair scruffy but his smile genuine. Looking around, I noticed the apartment was small, but neatly kept. “I see you brought your saxophone,” Tim chirped. “Want to get started?” Tim was my new saxophone teacher, and he had a reputation for being excellent. At the end of our first lesson (which went really well), Tim invited me to come hear him play with his college jazz lab band. “Come check it out!” he said. So that following weekend, I convinced my mom to take a couple of my sixth grade friends and me out to Tim’s community college so we could listen to the performance. Wow! Tim’s playing was remarkable, and I remember feeling so lucky to have such a great player for a teacher.

As a young musician, the fact that my teacher not only knew how to teach, but also played and lived the life of a musician too really mattered. I would venture to say, this holds true for all (or at least many) endeavors– when the teacher not only brings the knowledge and pedagogy to teach, but also love, passion, and an ability to demonstrate– whether it be playing an instrument, speaking another language, or writing– a certain authenticity is added. My father used to call it “walking the talk.” This week, my colleagues at Two Writing Teachers are committed to supporting teachers in dreaming big for this year’s writing workshop. Perhaps part of your dream for this year will be to authentically live the life of a writer!

Why write alongside our students?

Writing is hard. So, as a teacher of writing, I certainly did not start out writing alongside my students. One big reason for this was not making a connection between the power of living like a writer and inspiring student writers. But one of my mentors once told me, “Telling is not teaching.” And I realized at some point that if I, as a teacher of writing, put myself in the seat of my learners, I would better be able to anticipate some of the struggles, challenges, and possibilities my writers would face in the course of learning to write.

About ten years ago, I had the great fortune to attend a workshop by Donna Santman. In her session, Donna pointed out that oftentimes we attempt to teach strategies that we ourselves (the teachers) would never use. “What are the strategies you use really?” she posed. “Teach kids those strategies; for those will be the ones you will have the most command over.” Although she was talking about reading, the same can be said of writing. And I realized that only writing ourselves will reveal what strategies truly work.

In a June post, I quoted Katie Wood Ray, author and expert in writing who once said,

Everything we do in writing workshop teaches students. Either we can be walking, breathing, talking examples of all we advocate for our students, or we can have them sitting around wondering why we are trying to get them into something that we are obviously not into ourselves. They see me as someone who writes, which is how I’m asking them to see themselves, and this is a key ingredient to learning anything. They listen to me because they can see that I know what I’m talking about. You can’t get that if you don’t write.”

When we write alongside our students, we show them that writing is something worth working at, something worth the effort to improve. And, as Katie Wood Ray intimates in her quote above, by acting and living as an authentic writer ourselves we support our students’ writerly identities, a vital yet oft overlooked factor in teaching writing.

John Hattie, Professor of Education and Director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne, Australia, analyzed hundreds of meta-analyses for the purposes of determining what factors in education produce the highest effect sizes. In other words, Hattie wanted to learn what things we do as teachers can and do make the biggest difference. Toward the top of the list was found to be: “Teacher credibility in the eyes of students” (click here for more). Just like my teacher Tim earned credibility in my young eyes as a budding saxophonist, so too do we earn credibility by being writers ourselves.

Obstacles to writing alongside students and possible solutions

For many of us, we are at least vaguely aware of the value of living like a writer and how that can help us become stronger teachers of writing. But obstacles get in the way– for the purposes of this blog post, let’s call those obstacles “stories.” Below, I’ll use the term “stories” in place of “obstacles” to empower us; just like we have the power to change the stories we write, we might also consider a few suggestions for changing the stories we live.

When it comes to writing alongside our students, some stories that will predictably surface in our minds might be:

    • “But I’m not a good writer.” Choosing to write alongside students can create a feeling that we are exposing vulnerabilities. But what if we chose to view our own writing in the same way we hope our students will view it– as something we are striving to get better at doing? Similar to reading, writing is a skill learned in use. We become better at it by doing it more. If our students see us working to get better, and they also see us placing our trust and confidence in them as an audience, think of how that might make them feel as writers? How inspiring for young writers!
    • “I don’t have the time.” Yes, we are all busy, very busy.  But we can remember that schedules are moral documents.  They reflect what we truly believe in. Therefore, what we make time for is reflective of what we are committed to and hold as important. So, if you are just starting out with a fresh, new commitment to write alongside your students, you may want to start small; instead of trying every strategy you aim to teach, try just a few and share those attempts with students. Or try committing to doing some writing every month. You may also request that some teacher meeting time be devoted to teachers writing. By whatever way we choose to start small, it is likely we can experience a small taste of the wonder and discovery that is writing, and this can inspire us to want to find time to do more.
    • “It’s not that important to write myself.” It actually is important! In a recent Slice of Life Tuesday post, Kathleen encouraged us to check out teacher and long-time slicer Lisa Corbett’s podcast interview. During this interview, Lisa quotes Lucy Calkins by saying, “If you want to be a good teacher of writers, you need to be a writer yourself. You’ll never be able to teach them really well unless you’re going through that experience and experiencing the writing process for yourself.” Having personally experienced a material change in her teaching, Lisa goes on to say, “Just being a writer [myself] and going through the process has enhanced my teaching in every aspect of my day.”
    • “I’ll do that next year.” Committing to writing alongside your students is significant, but I would argue it is not the same as other “big” commitments that require altering multiple facets of our lives. We might think about phrases we will be able to use this year if we start writing, supportive teaching and conferring phrases such as:
  • “You know, when I tried this in my writing . . .”
  • “Okay, let me try this [strategy] in my writing now . . .”
  • “So here’s something I tried that you might try, too . . .”
  • “I feel like I’ve been working on this same thing! Let me show you what I tried…”

How to make it happen:

  • Gather inspiring materials- It may not seem that important, but artists and musicians would attest to the power of quality materials and equipment. Treat yourself to a beautiful notebook- it can help!
  • Tap helpful resources-  Many resources exist online to support teachers taking on a new role as teacher-as-writer.  Check out our Two Writing Teachers “Slicer” Community on SOL Tuesdays (click here for an example); one of the most supportive ways to begin a writing life is to share with an audience that will provide you with constructive feedback.  Also, consider visiting #Teachwrite, another supportive community, and/or connecting with your local chapter of the National Writing Project at https://www.nwp.org/.  The NWP is a place teachers can attend workshops that encourage teacher writing or provide a forum for teachers to share personal writing.
  • Enlist a colleague- Taking on a new commitment always becomes more possible when we have enrolled another person. Consider asking a colleague, either in your school, on Twitter, or even in another school, if they would be willing to take on writing alongside students with you. Supporting each other and holding one another accountable will make it more likely you will actually write!
  • Create a realistic goal- As I mentioned, you may wish to start small. Set small goals and work to meet them (see suggestions above for some ideas).  Don’t feel like writing every day (or even every week) is necessary (although we all know ourselves- What will be inspiring? What will feel overwhelming?).  I recommend at least trying some of the strategies you plan to teach students in writing workshop as an important place to start.
  • Embrace the imperfection- It is highly unlikely a new writing commitment will go perfectly. Life will happen. But let us not let that stop us!

After studying with Tim, I went on to become first chair saxophonist in our high school symphonic band. I also transferred a lot of what Tim taught me to the piano, the instrument I still play today.  And I can honestly say that although his knowledge and ability to teach were important, his passion and his life as a musician played an equal if not more significant role. He inspired me! That is what learners need.  And hey, remember we don’t worry about being the next great novelist. For as teacher/author/presenter Penny Kittle recently said, “Teachers don’t have to be great writers, they should just be a step ahead of their kids. They need to model the process, not the product.”  As my father would say, we need to walk our talk.

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Giveaway Information:

  • This giveaway is for a copy of Kids 1st from Day 1: A Teacher’s Guide to Today’s Classroom. Thanks to Heinemann for donating a copy for one reader. (You must have a U.S. mailing address to win a copy of this book.)

    Kids1stFromDayOne_med
    Leave a comment on the bottom of this blog post for a chance to win a copy of this book. (Be sure to read the giveaway information before you leave a comment. Thanks!)
  • For a chance to win this copy of Kids 1st from Day 1: A Teacher’s Guide to Today’s Classroom,  please leave a comment about this or any blog post in this blog series by Sunday, August 12th at 6:00 p.m. EDT. Melanie Meehan will use a random number generator to pick the winner’s commenter number. His/her name will be announced in the ICYMI blog post for this series on Monday, August 13th.
  • Please leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so Melanie can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.  From there, our contact at Heinemann will ship the book 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, Melanie will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – KIDS 1ST. Please respond to her e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.

 

Lanny Ball View All

For more than 27 years, Lanny has taught, coached, presented, staff developed, and consulted within the exciting and enigmatic world of literacy. With unyielding passion and belief in the possibility of workshop teaching, Lanny has worked to support students, teachers, and school administrators around the country in outgrowing themselves as both writers and readers. Working first as a classroom teacher, then as a coach and TCRWP Staff Developer, Lanny is now a literacy specialist, working and living in the great state of Connecticut. Outside of literacy, he enjoys raising his three ambitious young daughters with his wife, and playing the piano. Find him on this blog, as well as on Twitter @LannyBall. Lanny is also a co-author of a blog dedicated to supporting teachers and coaches that maintain classroom writing workshops, twowritingteachers.org.

40 thoughts on “This Is the Year I’m Going to Write Alongside My Students Leave a comment

  1. Thanks! I have fallen off the writing wagon the last few weeks, but I agree, my writing helps me be a better teacher of writers and I have to get back to writing (I write after school- 5AM is the earliest I am willing to get up). Last year I had my alarm set for 7PM to remind me to write if I had not already written that day- turning that back on NOW!

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  2. I just led professional development with teachers in my district around this topic and wish I would have seen this entry before I worked with them. It perfectly captures why it’s important as well as how to manage it without fear. Thank you!

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  3. Great article. I never realized the benefit of writing with your students until my experience in the Central Texas Writing Project. Our professor wrote along with us and spoke about her own struggles and strategies and this was helpful to those of us who didn’t consider ourselves great writers and even those that did. I found it helpful that it was a shared experience and the strategies and struggles the professor mentioned were always relevant.

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  4. Several things that I have read over the summer have stressed the importance of teachers writing alongside their students. I am guilty of encouraging my students to write, cheering them on, assisting them with suggestions for improvement. Yet, I do little to no writing of my own. I feel as though my own writing is poor, so I only did what I needed to in order to model what the lessons required. I wanted to improve my writing instruction, so I began reading more & more about writing. Your post shows me that I am not alone in this journey. This upcoming year it is my goal to write with my students, so that I can show them that we are growing & learning together. Thank you for sharing.

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  5. I’ve co-written a few genres with students and always used a model that I wrote for each genre study…but I never considered myself a writer. I don’t remember being taught to write in school – AT ALL! But just this summer I took an adult writing course and I’ve been writing with TeachWrite during their free Wednesday night series in August. I will admit, it’s NOT easy. It’s not easy to start, it’s not easy to persist, and it’s not easy to admit to myself that I need to work MUCH harder on this! Thanks for the blog. I found it life-confirming for myself this summer. Happy writing in the Fall!

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  6. They MUST see us struggle, otherwise, they believe that writing comes naturally to some people. Gotta take the mystery out of it!

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  7. Thank you for your inspirational and important reminder about why teachers need to be writing alongside our students. I love the circular ending inviting us to “walk our talk.” Those first steps can be hard, but so rewarding. Being vulnerable, sharing our uncertainty, and staying present really do add up to gaining students’ engagement and motivation to try new things. I love the short lists of conferring phrases that can be implemented right from the gate! Happy August!

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  8. Thanks for the support. This post is so timely. Last year I read with my students and introduced them to other adults as readers. We had wonderful authentic discussions about our reading because it became more personal. I’m thinking now, this could work with writing, too, and it goes right along with Jennifer Serravallo’s on-line summer writing camp. I’ll can definitely incorporate that writing in my lessons. Thanks, again.

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  9. Thank you for the reminder I need to write with my students. I always think about trying the slice of life challenge with my students, but this year I am committing to it! Yikes.

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  10. I do write with my students a lot of the time, though not 100%, because I want them to share their writing and if I am unwilling to share mine then I cannot expect them to share theirs. They like when I share this piece of myself with them.

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  11. I love this series on launching the writing workshop. My biggest excuse, as Lanny mentioned, is time. My goal is to commit to writing along side my kids at least every two weeks. In the past, I have noticed kids much more engaged in their own writing after I share something personal or share something that I wrote passionately about. It helps to share how I used a strategy or craft move. But, that is not necessary to inspire them.

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  12. Thanks for the encouragement and reminder of the power of writing along side our students. This is a goal I have for myself this year — I’m excited to see how it changes the work we do together. Thank you! ❤️

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  13. I was so excited to see your post in my inbox this morning — writing alongside my students is s new goal I am implementing this year. Thanks for the empowering words of wisdom! ❤️

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  14. Thanks for this–I’ll be sharing this post with my pre-service teachers. I like the shift from “obstacles” to “stories”–a reminder that how we frame a situation, experience, feeling, or belief has real power. I also love the idea of schedules as “moral documents.” I find myself saying dozens of times a semester to my pre-service teachers that line from Randy Bomer: “We make time for what we value.” Of course, often we don’t, partly because of the “stories” we tell ourselves. We need those regular reminders that the most authentic life is the one where we make time for what’s important.

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  15. This article is just what I needed to be reminded of as I start a new school year. You’re right. Writing is hard and it’s important to remember to work with our students as they move through the process.

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  16. You truly spoke to me about “I don’t have the time!” That’s always my excuse. I really want to work on my craft as a writing teacher this year and I appreciate how you suggested setting a goal to write a certain amount each month or trying just a few of the strategies that we teach kids. So I will start today…making a list. And I will set a goal for how often I will write each week.

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  17. Thank you for so many great, inspirational thoughts! Love that succinct line “telling is not teaching” – I work with novice teachers, and “telling” is often an automatic approach. I agree wholeheartedly with thinking about what strategies work for us – and demonstrating these.

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  18. Thank you so much for this post! So many of my colleagues do not feel comfortable writing. I always encourage them to try. You don’t need to be a great writer, as you said, you simply need to be the best writer in the room. We are always using professional authors as mentors, but think of the impact of “knowing” the author on a more personal level (you, their teacher)! We spend so much time forming trusting and caring relationships with our students. We should bank on those relationships. Seeing US do the thing we ask them to do, is exponentially more impactful. P.S. I started as a K teacher, and Kristie is my teaching idol! I would LOVE so much to be the winner of this book! ❤

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  19. I am posting your piece on this week’s back to school edition of my school Smore! Thank you all for being such an inspiration to a passionate writer!

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  20. …sharing our passion and our lives…one step ahead, modeling for our students…resonated with me to write and share our stories, not just read others stories…motivating, thank you

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  21. Writing alongside our students is a catalyst. Not only does the educator grow and share in their vulnerability, but together voice is brought forth and another avenue or pathway for a stronger relationship is formed. Great post and great idea to reaffirm this potential through this blog.

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  22. Great post. Last year, I saw wonders with my students’ desire to write, and boy, did they write. They not only looked forward to writing everyday, but they started to look at things through the eyes of writers. (Quite inspiring for me.) the only difference from previous years is that I took myself on the writing journey with them. When they wrote, I wrote for the first few minutes before conferring. When they shared their struggles, I shared mine as well. Being transparent truly changed our writing time together. It was exciting watching them grow as writers as well as myself.

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    • Thank you for sharing your inspiring example! I had a similar experience when I began writing with my students, too. I didn’t write about this in the post, but I remember that by writing alongside the kids, a certain magical fun seemed to inject itself into writing workshop. Thank you for contributing this comment!

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  23. Powerful, practical advice on why teachers of writing need to be writers. We must take risks as writers if we expect the students to take risks; writing with and for them is one of those. It takes courage to put a piece of one’s soul on the page for others to see. Furthermore, this demystifies the writing process – the fundamental rule of good teaching is the same as that of good writing: SHOW, don’t TELL. I believe in doing everything I ask the students to do. Thank you for this encouraging, guiding g post!

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  24. I love the example of your saxophone teacher! We wouldn’t dream of taking music lessons from a non-practicing musician! This post is extremely important – great practical tips and excuse-busters keep in mind.

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  25. For teachers in our district to be hired for teaching talent (music, theater, or art), they must be a practicing artist. This is not true for teachers of writing. But it should be. Thanks for your passion for writing alongside students. As long as I am a teacher of writing, I will also be a writer. My students deserve this. And I am a stronger, more authentic teacher for it.

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    • Wow, that’s such an interesting point about the requirement to be a practicing artist, Margaret. I have to agree with your equivocation- teachers really ought to be “practicing artists”, too! It’s heartening to know of your passion to be a writer and how you see it better serving your students. Thank you for your comment!

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  26. Thank you for writing about “walking the talk” with regard to teaching writing. I agree that kids know authenticity when they see it. I am motivated to write alongside my firsties this year. I think it will really help them feel more comfortable with their own writing adventures.

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    • You’re so welcome! I agree with you about kids’ ability to know authenticity when they see it. I wish you wonderful adventures this year writing alongside your students! Thanks for your comment 🙂

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