4 Tips for Modeling with Your Own Writing

“How about ‘Autumn Leaves’?”  I could feel the nervous energy in my 22 year-old voice as I made this suggestion.  The jazz legend sitting next to me quietly puffed his dark brown cigarette, slowly blinked his eyes, and nodded.  “Sure, go ahead.”  Turning my head back to the upright piano at which I sat, I launched into the famous jazz standard, playing through the tune the best… well, the best I knew how at the time.  After my final note, I cast a questioning gaze back to my teacher.  “Okay,” he said raising his eyebrows, “let’s trade places.  Now, I just want you to listen.”  I moved to the chair adjacent the piano and listened as the great Mal Waldron, taking his place on the piano bench, played through the exact same song I’d just played, “Autumn Leaves.”  And my life as a jazz pianist was transformed forever.

The chances of those of you reading this post being jazz pianists are rather low, so I will forego the specifics of what this lesson provided in terms of the overarching musical approach that transformed my playing that day.  Suffice it to say, however, that what Mr. Waldron taught me was not a specific set of steps I have continued to follow; rather, his teaching showed me the power of modeling.  And as teachers of writing, many of us know that the modeling we provide our writers can have an enormously positive effect on their writing.

Last month, I wrote a post about the importance of writing alongside our writers.  For many of us who work to live as writers and teachers who write, we likely do so in order to more fully appreciate the challenge, the complexity, and the thrill that writing can provide for our lives.  It is living through the process that matters.  But what about turning some of our writing into teaching tools for our writing workshops?  How can we use our own writing in service of profoundly affecting the writing lives of the young writers in our classrooms, similar to the way Mal Waldron affected my musical life through modeling those many years ago?

Since many of us begin the year with some type of narrative writing (small moments, personal narratives, memoir, etc.), I would offer the following tips when modeling with your own writing this time of year:

Tip 1:  Model with stories from times when you were about the age of your students.  Especially at the outset of a unit of study on narrative writing, work to model with personal stories from when you were around your students’ age. I’ve spent my professional life primarily around middle school students, so I typically aim for stories that happened when I was between 4th grade and 8th (or perhaps 9th) grade.  It is important to remember that our students are not married, they cannot drive, they do not have children of their own, etc.  In other words, they are not adults, yet.  So although I could model with and write a whole plethora of funny, tense, or beautiful small moments inside topics like (1) my wedding day, or (2) driving across the country, or (3) times with my daughters, these types of moments are most likely going to be difficult for students to identify with or find themselves fascinated by.  Knowing that, I will typically work inside topics and/or select stories that happened when I was walking in the very shoes in which my students now walk.  For example, I’ve leaned on the following moments for modeling:

  • times I had trouble at soccer practice
  • the time my fourth grade girlfriend gave a love note to my best friend (and not me!)
  • the time my brother and I caught my grandfather smoking when his doctor had forbade it
  • the time my best friend and I tried to shoot my dad’s bb gun when he wasn’t home

By modeling with stories of when I was around my students’ age, I often feel like I’m helping them find their own way into this type of writing.  And if kids can see themselves in the example(s) we share, either with the class, a small group, or in a conference, we stand a good chance of opening a door for writing.

Tip 2:  Model with stories that contain some trouble or tension.  One of my mentors once said, “We write to hang onto to moments of trouble.”  Indeed!  When modeling with our own writing in a writing workshop, this might be considered an axiom we want to try and remember.  Across my career, I have found that many students gravitate toward what might be commonly known as “The Six Flags Story” when writing narrative.  These stories of wonderful moments that took place (perhaps on their vacation) often lack interest, meaning, and/or tension.  Yet, as literacy teachers, we know that humans generally form stories around a consistent arc, an arc that, more often than not, includes some type of problem or conflict the main character must grapple with or face.  Therefore, in middle schools where I work, I always work to model with stories that contain some trouble or tension.  For some reason, I explain to students, our human nature generates more interest in a story when a story has a problem or something a character is trying to overcome.  Think about the examples I listed above– notice that each of these moments is rife with trouble and illicit tension.  By modeling with these types of stories, students begin to think about their own moments of tension or trouble and become more likely to tell a story with some real meaning.

Tip 3:  Model a disposition for revision.  Writers write with a willingness to revise– right away.  As a teacher of writing, it is important that we strive to include this notion in our modeling.  Last week, I taught a revision lesson using a mentor text.  While in the meeting area, I hung a large print version of my original lead:

One time my friend came over to my house.  We were trying to think of something to do.  My friend suggested we take my dad’s BB gun to the back yard where he could show me how to shoot it.  “Do you really think we should?” I asked.

Using our mentor text, I then showed how I could skip the prelude and rewrite this lead, dropping the reader right into a tense scene.  I wanted to demonstrate that by completely rewriting part of my story, I might make it sound more like a professional writer:

The triangular handle of the BB gun rested silently on the dark shag carpet, supporting a thin dark barrel that leaned heavily against my father’s orange chester drawers.  Standing there in the back of my parents’ unlit room, the weapon had a menacing quality that made it even more frightening than it had looked when my father had held it in the light. “I can show you how to shoot that,” my friend whispered.

By modeling in this way, students were able to see that writers sometimes rewrite whole swaths of their pieces, thereby thinking of revision in a much bigger way than perhaps they had before.  I found following this lesson that many students were much more willing to try medium to large-scale revision.

Tip 4:  Model a willingness to take risks.  Writers take risks.  We experiment.  And by doing so, we leave ourselves vulnerable.  As teachers of writing, this is something we can work to model, as well.  Sometimes this risk-taking can take the form of the story with which we model.  Take my BB Gun story, for example: by modeling with this story, I am showing that sometimes I couldn’t stand up to my friends, that I didn’t always make the right decision.  And I am laying myself vulnerable by writing about this time.  Taking risks can also sometimes look like playing with form or perhaps punctuation, in which case I’ll often say, “I’m not sure about this, but I am going to try it…”  Part of the writing process means trying stuff out, so the more we can model that, the better.

I left my piano lesson with Mal Waldron that day a changed player.  Through Mal’s modeling, I was able to lift the level of my own playing.  As author and researcher Dr. Brian Cambourne points out, part of the way learners learn happens through demonstration.  Perhaps you have vowed to write alongside your students this year?  Consider carrying these tips with you as you turn your writing into a teaching tool!