This post by member Katie Kraushaar appeared first in 2017.
Six years ago, if you had told me that I would be sharing my messy, work-in-progress writing with my 7th graders and listening as they gave me feedback, I would have laughed. Feedback? From my students? Who’s the teacher here?
But there I was, standing in front of 25 thirteen-year-olds, bemoaning the fact that the scene where my protagonist was supposed to meet a friend just wasn’t working.
I looked at my students. “I need some ideas. What do you think?” Hands started to raise, and conversations floated between writing partners as they excitedly discussed directions for my story. As students shared ideas, I furiously typed comments on my manuscript, trying to capture all of the possibilities. Later, I’d go back and rewrite the scene, weaving in Kate’s suggestion that my protagonist give herself a pep talk before meeting her new friend, as well as Izzy’s idea that she should be writing in her journal, a character trait that was important to the storyline.
These days, I am intentional about using the word writers when referring to my students and myself. This language makes it clear that, in this room, we write and learn together. It wasn’t always this way. Too often, the way writing is taught amplifies the division between the students and the teacher: one is there to teach, while the rest are there to be taught.
When I first started teaching, I was guilty of approaching writing this way because I did not call myself a writer. Sure, I wrote, but I wasn’t a writer. Like many of our students, I associated the word with someone who had an agent and who spent hours workshopping manuscripts to shop around to publishing companies. The word “writer” was reserved for the elite few…not for teachers like me.
This mindset is damaging. It is what made me spend the first few years of my teaching career turning to the comfort of pre-made graphic organizers and canned, prescriptive ways of teaching writing, turning the art of putting words on a page into a paint-by-numbers activity.
It is what made me clutch my own words close to my chest, scared to share my writing with my students for fear that they would see my imperfections and declare me unfit to teach English. It is what ultimately made my teaching of writing inauthentic, unmemorable, and frankly, ineffective.
Six years later, I am comfortable calling myself a writer, both to my students and to myself. This simple statement is one that resonates. It dismantles the pedestal writing is often placed on and makes it accessible for anyone who has something to say. It gives students the confidence to say, “I, too, am a writer.”
This revolutionized my approach to the teaching of writing. When we began gathering ideas for our realistic fiction stories, instead of spending time searching the Internet for graphic organizers, I filled pages in my journal with my own ideas and noted my process. I shared my approach with my writers and invited them to experiment with different methods of discovering story ideas.
As we began drafting, predictably, we learned that writing a story is anything but easy. We hit many snags: ideas that didn’t go anywhere, phrases that just wouldn’t sing, the long distance between what’s in the head and what ends up on the page.
In the past, these struggles would have elicited rubric-based criticism that emphasized my role as an evaluator. However, because I write, feedback looks less like an “I say, you do” process and more like a conversation between two people who are on a journey together.
I am able to nod my head in solidarity when students describe a difficulty and say, “Oh, me too. I’ve had trouble with that before. Let’s figure this out together.” Because I write, I am empathetic, not just sympathetic. Telling my students that I deal with the very same issues they do allows both of us to put our heads together as fellow writers to determine a best course of action.
When we published our realistic fiction stories, we took time to share them, savoring the chance to read each other’s words. In the past, I might have skipped this step, instead gathering up the stories to critique and grade. However, because I see myself as a writer too, we take time to celebrate. We honor our work because writing is hard. Writers need this encouragement. They need to know that their words matter and that someone has read them. This perspective is only possible because I write.
The truth about writing is that it is never finished. And we are never completely finished “becoming” writers, no matter how many years of practice we have or degrees we hold. Every time I pick up a pen, I remember that writing is hard. This knowledge follows me into the classroom when I watch my writers work to put words on the page, and weaves itself into every interaction I have with them.
In the classroom of a teacher who calls herself a writer, writing is no longer a remote act reserved for the creative few. Writing is for everyone with something to say, and anyone who writes is a writer. A freeing truth for both students and teachers alike.
Katie Kraushaar is a 7th grade English-Language Arts teacher in St. Louis, MO. In addition to her seven years in the classroom, Katie is a Teacher Consultant for the Gateway Writing Project, a satellite of the National Writing Project. Connect with Katie through her blog and on Twitter.