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Building Better Writers

Being a better writer and teacher requires a daily practice

by Angela Stockman

When was the last time you curled up with your favorite pen, a bit of high-quality paper, and a bunch of ideas that you were truly interested in writing about? Devices might make for quick and efficient work, but they can be rather soulless writing instruments. If you want to fall in love with writing, and you will need to love it as much as you might loathe it if you ever hope to teach it well, then writing with soul really matters. Leading with it inside of your classroom does as well. How do we achieve this?

Most begin by becoming writers themselves: people who make a dedicated practice out of communicating their ideas purposefully, about things that really matter. We don’t have to publish, although many make this a goal. Some begin by keeping notebooks where they gather and tinker with new ideas, while others commit to reflective writing each day, using their practice as a vehicle for professional or personal growth. Many set goals that motivate them to get their work out into the world, but going public isn’t a requirement. It’s a choice. The one thing that all writers seem to have in common is the desire to use their words with intention and their willingness to do so habitually. Discipline is soul-work, after all.

The Bigger Challenge

Open notebook with three pens laying diagonally at a 45 degree angle; blue, purple, blackThat few teachers identify themselves as writers is troubling, but the notion that their vocation undermines their potential to do so is a bitter irony that is worthy of greater attention. Teachers struggle to find the time and energy to sustain writerly habits, as many over-scheduled working people do. The consequences of limited writing practice may be greater for teachers, though. When teachers aren’t writing, their productivity and progress isn’t the only thing that suffers. They fail to develop the confidence or the skills necessary to support their students as well. According to Duke University political scientist and scholar writer Michael Munger, consistency is key for those who intend to become writers and especially, for those who hope to teach writing. “We train people in methods, and theory,” he suggests, “but we don’t tell them that writing is something you have to practice.”

The history of writing instruction in the United States seems to confirm this. Fifty years ago, writing teachers provided direct instruction of spelling, punctuation, grammar and mechanics. The rules mattered more than the consistent practice of writing, and while some students became proficient writers this way, others did not. This inspired schools of education to shift away from traditional instruction as they embraced a far more creative and collaborative approach. Students were invited to experiment with diverse modes and genres, share their works in progress, and seek feedback from peers as well as teachers. This movement turned teachers’ attention to the process of writing and the development of certain habits and attitudes. Many students thrived in this new culture, but some did not.

Today, writing teachers struggle to balance students’ attention to quantity and quality as they fight for time to consistently coach writing in their classrooms. Some have reduced their curriculum to quick assignments and lessons that attend only to the surface of a text. They hope that teaching the mechanics of writing will be enough to build better writers, but as poignancy takes a back seat to proficiency, writing becomes formulaic and unimaginative, and teachers lose confidence in their abilities to coach the craft well. As the demands of other content areas and the special needs of students grow, those who were never able to fully realize the potential of quality writing instruction often choose to eliminate it altogether.

The Change

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It’s true that those who fail to write well often underperform in other content area classes, but what’s more disturbing is that weak writers typically lack the ability to successfully advocate for their own needs and the needs of others. Perhaps poor test scores aren’t enough to inspire significant change in how teachers support writers, but this reality should: inequities in writing instruction and performance inspire social inequities and injustices as well. Confident writers stand up and speak out while those who lack confidence fall silent.

Developing a robust understanding of quality writing and the skills necessary to produce it is the work of a lifetime, and the result of consistent practice. Becoming a quality teacher of writing is the work of an entire career, and it requires just as much dedication. Systems that nurture the development of writers and teachers of writing cultivate curriculum that attends to far more than state or local standards. Here, specific habits, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors are defined, modeled, and assessed with great intention. Most importantly, everyone, including teachers and administrators, writes daily.

Professional development moves beyond events intended to merely build awareness or deepen knowledge. Writing and learning communities are established by and for teachers, and differentiated pathways for building capacity are created. The theories of change that drive these initiatives include one critical goal as well: the need to build and sustain teacher-writers and encourage their leadership at all levels of the system. This includes making teachers the true leaders of professional learning and positioning traditional facilitators as their mentors who serve them instead of experts to be obeyed.

In healthy systems where writers thrive, data drive the decisions that are made by students, teachers, and administrators alike. Nuanced understandings about data and its uses are encouraged as well. Rather than relying on numbers generated by tests, teachers learn how to code and establish hunches from qualitative data that are gathered from rich and rewarding learning experiences. People are consistently invited to share their interests, expertise, and needs. Audio and video recordings are captured, making the writing process and the learning that students engage in far more visible. Those who plan for change consider how it will be reflected in the ways people behave and feel rather than focusing exclusively on activities and performance outcomes. Everyone within the system becomes a learner, and all learners engage in consistent reflection. Documentation inspires deeper learning, and time for this kind of data analysis is regularly scheduled and carefully protected.

The Next Generation of Teachers and Writers

As social media inspires more frequent and deeper global connections among teachers, opportunities to begin and sustain powerful habits abound. Those in need of writing inspiration, support, and a bit of accountability can easily find it inside of thriving virtual communities. What’s more, the relationships built there and the learning that transpires often helps teachers begin to identify as writers and gain the confidence they need to experiment with new and improved practices in their classrooms. These teachers become beacons for others who know how important writing is and how much courage it takes to practice it regularly.

The next generation of writers and teachers will likely require fewer reminders about the importance of writing and more opportunities to get better at it. The fact is that most of them are writing outside the classroom for authentic purposes daily, if not hourly. They have meaningful things to say about their lives and their experiences, and they’re connected inside social networks where opportunities to raise their voices and support or even challenge others are ready and waiting for them. Those who are unable to use their words with discretion suffer immediate and even long-lasting discomfort, while others who have a way with words find their abilities to influence others and make a positive difference in their world rewarding.

This raises new questions for teachers of writing who are committed to regular practice. Is it important for them to engage on social media? How might they use their words to make a difference inside their networks? What does soulful social media engagement entail? How might they coach the writers they support to pursue this kind of writing as well?

As I consider these questions and the challenges we continue to face in our endeavors to build better writers, I’m reminded of one simple truth: when we run out of problems to solve, we run out of opportunities to teach and learn. Finding the right problem to address is worthy work, and chasing new problems once we’ve found our first solutions is even better. If history has shown us that our attention to the mechanics, the process, and even the culture we build around writing has helped some thrive while others continue to flail, perhaps it’s time to revisit the influence of consistent practice on the development of young writers. Perhaps it’s time to invest ourselves in our own daily writing practice as well.

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