Driving Development

Collaborating, Inspiring, and Growing as Educators, Issue #2

Inspire to Inquire

Article of the Week


Writing With Your Students: A Joyful Happening

by Anne Whitney


When I invite a group of learners to write—and then pick up my own pencil—I hear a busy, almost holy sound in the classroom. Pencils scratch across paper, fingers tap at sticky keyboards. Writers sigh, shift in their seats, crumple paper. When I look up, heads are down, fingers moving. Tongues stick out the sides of mouths in concentration; lips mouth words. Writers look up, searching for something—then draw a breath and jump back in. Writing together is a happening, and I don’t want to be left out. So I write, too.


Since the 1980s, writing teachers have heard the refrain “the teacher of writing must also write.” We are told that writing with our students is good for students and good for us. As a researcher of writing and teaching, I know this statement to be as true empirically as it is in my heart; I have spent much of my career helping teachers write.


However, the advice that teachers should write with their students is almost always offered in a chiding tone. Being told we “should” do something does not always propel us to do it or make it easy to do. Behind these shoulds are judgments—you’re doing it wrong; you’re not doing enough—that disinvite people from the very thing being promoted. These shoulds reflect deficit perspectives we would never take toward our students.


Writing in the classroom is good for teachers and kids. Whyte et al. (2007) found that students whose teachers wrote along with them were higher achievers, and my own research (Whitney 2008) has shown that writing and sharing in writing groups sparks transformative professional development. But here I want to share why writing in the classroom feels right for me, why I find it fun, and how it helps me do what I want to do with students every day. I don’t just do it because I should, I do it because I like it.


My students and I begin almost everything we do by writing. “Let’s start with a little writing,” I say. “I’ll write too.” We write quickly, messily, in scribble and shorthand. We type by touch or hunt and peck. We “quickwrite” to start a conversation. We write zero drafts, first drafts, revisions. We write for ourselves and we write for others where we process pieces and pieces for publication. But whatever we do on a given day, a visitor sees a similar picture: students writing at desks, on paper or on screens,and me writing, sometimes in my notebook, sometimes on a laptop—often on a screen that anyone can look up and see. I cross out, erase, misspell, and make typos—all in front of the class. I stop, start over, search for a word, leave a blank, and go on.


After we write a bit, we talk. We talk—not I talk. And because we have all written, we all have things to say. We read what we have so far, talk about what else we have planned, and raise questions. I listen or say, “Me too.” Sometimes I suggest, “Something I have tried is. . . .” Instead of giving directions, or evaluating, I listen and moderate. And instead of asking questions with answers—answers that don’t always come and that I end up supplying—I’m able to ask questions that get us going.


How unlike a “lesson” these conversations can be! When I am a writer too, students and I can compare notes as fellow writers, and the advice I offer comes from one more experienced to one just beginning on the same path. Writing, after all, places us in conversation with a wider world—a conversation we silence when we set students apart from us and from one another, writing words that travel in one direction only—to our gradebooks. When we all are writing, we all face common challenges.


There is no perfect time to start writing with your students; you just need to begin. Next time you ask students to brainstorm, do your own on the board at the same time. You don’t have to call undue attention to it: “I’ll do one too” (and then doing it) is enough. Or next time students quickwrite in response to something they have read, try it yourself—and then share yours in whatever way you ask students to share theirs. Sometimes a teacher worries that students will get off track while her attention is on her own writing; I find students can usually handle it, but I sometimes underscore my physical proximity by choosing a chair right in the middle of the kids or writing on a clipboard while walking around the room.


Sometimes I write with students all the way through an assignment or unit, revising my own work as they do and reading mine aloud on the day it’s due right along with them. Other times it’s enough that I join them in the first exploratory sessions and then circulate/confer while they keep going. But a few shimmering pieces of writing I start alongside my students sometimes grows into something beyond the classroom.


I began a maid-of-honor toast in a sixth-grade classroom I was visiting. In a graduate course I was instructing, I jotted down a journal entry about a hard day’s teaching that became a journal article. A reading response I wrote along with some high school students became the first page of a letter I wrote—and finally sent—to a long-estranged friend. This doesn’t have to happen, but when it does I savor it. In these moments the person I am—the me who goes to weddings, fights with friends, or cries after a bad day—reunites with the everyday classroom me. I am somehow more myself in the classroom as a writer than teaching usually allows. Instead of a depersonalized implementer of instruction, or a manager of activities, or an evaluator of performance, I am just a human being working with other human beings.


References

Whitney, A. E. 2008. Teacher Transformation in the National Writing Project.Research in the Teaching of English, 43(2), 144–187.

Whyte, A., Lazarte, A., Thompson, I., Ellis, N., Muse, A., & Talbot, R. 2007. The National Writing Project, Teachers’ Writing Lives, and Student Achievement in Writing. Action in Teacher Education, 29(2), 5–16.

Interested in $100 to spend on your classroom?

If you have "The Write Stuff" you will be in the running for a $100 grant to spend on your class! Details will be shared Wednesday during ERD.

Cougar Collaboration

Do you have a book you absolutely love sharing with your students? Are you reading a book that has inspired you as an educator? Let's create a list of our favorite books!


Visit the Hinkle Creek Book List to view and add your favorite books.

Book Study Coming Soon!

We will be reading Growing Readers by Kathy Collins. This is an excellent book for those of you who are interested in extending your knowledge of the reader's workshop. The book is intended for primary classrooms, but is really suitable for all grade levels. Some of you read this book with Tammy Fitzgerald last year and found the book to be beneficial, so we are extending the opportunity to more teachers. Please email me or Tammy if you are interested in joining us for a book study of Growing Readers.


Book Information

Literacy Strategies to Try

Double-Entry Journals

A Double-Entry Journal is a great comprehension strategy for grades 2 and up. Students choose quotes from a text and reflect on the text in various ways, such as making connections and reflecting on what they have read. Come by my room and grab the Double-Entry Journal handout that is posted outside my door!

Creating a Close Reading for Primary Classes Video

Visit ReadWriteThink.org to discover learning resources, along with professional development videos. Below is a link to a short video sharing ideas for creating a close reading for first grade.


Click here to view the video.