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Leadership and Activism, Learning at its Best, School Stories

How a Teacher Becomes a Writer

[Guest-blogger Susan R. Adams contributes this #blog4nwp post as a member of the Hoosier Writing Project.]

Teachers must act in an imperfect world. We have no choice but to risk ourselves. The choice is to consider the risk private or to build a community that accepts vulnerability and shares risks. Vulnerability is endurable in a community of care and support-a community in which members take time telling and listening to the stories of each other’s journey…We need people who listen to us and to whom we listen, who help in the narration of our story, so we can more readily recognize our changing values and meanings…We must begin to scrutinize and become intentional about the communities within which we teach. We must seek out new coalitions and work intentionally at the social fabric that surrounds those of us who are called to be teachers. (Huebner, 1987, pp. 26-27)

It is only because I am a teacher that I can begin to conceive of myself as a writer. If I were not a teacher, no one would have ever told me that I am a writer, that students are writers, and indeed, that we are all writers as participants in the practices of a literate community (Atwell, 1998). My generation was told emphatically by our teachers that we might hope to be writers one day if we read the canon, learned to read, write and speak Standard English, and somehow lucked into telling the right story at the right time. We took that as a “no.”

But just as we were graduating from high school in the early eighties, a new philosophy of teaching writing was being born and so we missed the earliest appearances of what is often called process writing (Atwell, 1998) (Kamler, 2001), a new way of thinking about what writing is, how students could be supported as they learn to write, and how writing might unlock new avenues for learning (Bomer, 2006). If process writing or writing workshop were discussed in my preservice teacher education, I have no memory of it. Instead, I had been trained to write to prove compliance or to regurgitate what my professors had told me, just as Miller articulates,

None of us, as students or teachers, had been encouraged to view our learning or teaching as a form of research, as a way of looking and looking again at what and how we wanted to find out about teaching and learning…we had become, in fact, quite adept at recycling the knowledge that had been presented to us in various classrooms throughout our lives. (1990, p. 76)

While my preservice teacher education program did require a content reading course as part of my licensure, no course or class discussion prepared me to see myself as a teacher of writing (Adams, 2009).

Why Write with Teachers?

When I participated in the 2006 intensive Summer Institute of the local Hoosier Writing Project (HWP), the local site of the National Writing Project (The National Writing Project, 2009), I realized to my surprise that even English/language arts teachers reported that they had not been prepared to teach writing, either. When I returned to my school that fall, my colleagues were receptive to learning more about how to use writing in their classrooms, but many expressed insecurities and doubt about their ability to teach students how to write, even in the genres of their subject areas. A science teacher confided she was dissatisfied with the lab reports her students turned in, but admitted she had no idea how to teach the students the skill of writing lab reports. As I began leading professional development for my colleagues, I encountered what Miller ran into:

The teachers constantly spoke of mandated curriculum requirements, administrative pressure for raised student achievement scores, and the restrictions of time and lack of student interest as impediments to the implementation of writing in their classrooms. Only when we began to write in our in-service context were some able to talk about ways in which their own writing enabled them to see themselves as learners-discoverers.” (Miller, 1990, p. 92)

I began to understand the power of creating time and space for teachers to write creatively, as well as time for teachers to share their writing with one another. We have been shaped by our own school experiences, by the

…[d]ominator culture [that]  has tried to keep us all afraid, to make us choose safety instead of risk, sameness instead of diversity.  Moving through that fear, finding out what connects us, reveling in our differences; this is the process that brings us closer, that gives us a world of shared values, of meaningful community.” (hooks, 2003, p. 197)

I learned that we as teachers,

…needed to tell our own stories first…to develop the trust…to develop an awareness of and respect for one another’s struggles…to develop a trust in the accepting and supportive nature of our [writing]. These elements appear to be necessary foundations for establishing collaborative approaches… (Miller, 1990, p. 63)

Each time I design and lead a writing workshop for teachers, I notice this dynamic Miller describes and am convinced, “[t]here is a pleasure in writing oneself as an embodied self-in moving across a terrain of landscapes, geographical relocations, and scholarly terrains” (Kamler, 2001) but I am also aware that, “[t]here are also dangers of getting lost in the pleasure of the journey, losing sight of what we are telling or why we are trying to map these locations” (Kamler, 2001, p. 5). This creative “… process of recreating images and narratives that give shape to what we consider to be our pasts…Each time an event is remembered it must be interpreted within the current situation of recollection.” (Sumara, 2002, p. 63). Writing invites us into, “[w]riting a self, turning it into a textual artifact, [which] makes it productively useable in ways in which it was not prior to it being written down…[where] the personal is fashioned out of a complex set of cultural resources that both shape the writer and are shaped by her.” (Kamler, 2001, p. 54). It is as we write that, we experience what Michaels calls the “gradual instant,” which happens when“[t]he memories we elude catch up to us, overtake us like a shadow. A truth appears suddenly in the middle of a thought, a hair on a lens” (Michaels, 1996, p. 213).

My participation in the NWP has altered my perceptions of myself as my words touch and impact other teachers. I found I have a perspective to contribute and a unique niche to fill in my site. I am an active participant on our HWP listserv, support data collection in local schools in conjunction with a national research study on teaching writing and facilitate our HWP advanced summer institute. I have applied for and won a NWP minigrant through the English Language Learners Network, have presented at the Urban Sites Network Conference and have supported local colleagues after they won an Urban Sites Network minigrant to work on equity issues. I have published both scholarly and personal writing and am currently facing down the granddaddy of academic writing projects: my dissertation. Most of this would have been unthinkable if not for my participation in the NWP.

But most importantly, my teaching changed and my view of students changed. I went back into my high school classroom and told my English language learners (ELLs) that they are writers, too. And then we began writing until even they began to believe me. Although I had previously believed I knew my students well, whole new aspects of their lives were revealed to me as I teased their stories out of them. This is the power of the NWP experience for teachers and this rich, deep resource deserves to be maintained for the sake of teachers and students everywhere.


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7 thoughts on “How a Teacher Becomes a Writer

  1. Great post. One I’m looking forward to reflecting on with greater depth as I think about teaching writing, sharing my writing, and writing more. Thanks!

    Posted by Maureen Devlin | March 15, 2011, 5:39 pm
  2. Hello NWP friend
    I wanted to let you know that I “borrowed” some of your post for a found poem I composed for the #blog4nwp weekend. I was inspired by what I was reading. Thank you for your words, and your thoughts, and if I had to do some slight twisting to make it work in the poem, I hope you accept my forgiveness.

    The poem and podcast is here:

    Kevin Hodgson
    Western Massachusetts Writing Project

    Posted by Kevin Hodgson | March 20, 2011, 9:13 am


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