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.)

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