Opinion: To teach writing, it helps to see yourself as a writer

One of the joys of my job is reading the wonderful guest columns submitted by teachers.

Often, teachers will send me a suggestion for a column. But their notes are so well written, so engaging and so full of passion that I suggest they write the piece instead.

Many do, and those essays are always interesting and authentic.

It is not a surprise that teachers are great writers; their profession requires storytelling and explanatory skills. This guest column today discusses how teachers can further those skills.

Stephanie Jones and Hilary Hughes are University of Georgia professors in the Department of Educational Theory and Practice and co-directors of the Red Clay Writing Project; Breanne Huston is an instructional coach in Hart County Schools and co-director of the Red Clay Writing Project; Shara Cherniak is a doctoral student in the Educational Theory and Practice Department at UGA and 2016 Red Clay Fellow; and Heather Wall is a Literacy Professional Learning Specialist in the Hall County Schools and 2013 Red Clay Fellow.

By Stephanie Jones, Hilary Hughes, Breanne Huston, Shara Cherniak and Heather Wall

Fifteen educators began a transformative journey on June 4th as they came together as Red Clay Writing Project 2018 Fellows.

For a magical 15 years, teachers have been spending weeks together during the summer in Athens, Georgia, to focus on themselves as writers. For some, that means rediscovering writing as a part of their life, honing their craft to become a published author, or confronting their demons about writing that linger from their school-age years. For others that may just mean trying to write the way they ask their students to write every day.

Teachers who see themselves as writers and practice writing are more effective and inspirational teachers of writing, which is why this is a fundamental principle of the National Writing Project. Red Clay is one of nearly 200 local sites of the NWP which is known as the longest-running and most impactful professional learning organization in the United States.

Many teachers tell a similar story: they enjoyed writing as a kid, they experimented with imitating authors they loved, and they played freely with language and expression – but as adults they feel hesitant about their writing, even reluctant to write.

“Instead of writing being a fun adventure of playing with how I was saying things and telling the stories that I know or imagine and how they touch my heart, I suddenly began to judge myself, and putting the words down on the page became a struggle.” Shara was a former kindergarten teacher in a graduate program “embarking on trying to reawaken that writer buried inside me.”

Those inner writers start to poke their heads out from behind the curtain in Red Clay’s Summer Institute, and Shara and her colleagues – like so many before them – experience a community of writers that supports their risk-taking and creativity. They write and share and try different craft techniques and explore different genres and write and share some more. While it feels vulnerable to many, especially in the beginning, everyone finishes the Institute feeling more confident and competent as a writer in a variety of ways.

How does the magic happen?

Books about writing written by creative authors are devoured and, in many ways, imitated, drawing on the craft and genre techniques offered within the pages.

Write, write, write. Writers are given big chunks of time to write what they want and how they want. Choice and power over one’s writing is vital to our feelings of confidence and competence in what we are doing and what we can do in the future.

Share, receive feedback, write some more. Writers form writing groups to share their work and offer supportive feedback to one another on craft, genre, and conventions to take the piece to the next level.

Think differently about writing. Writers are invited to think differently about writing every day, all day long. They are asked to consider the perspective of their writing, how they use their power as a writer, and how their writing might position different kinds of readers. They are reminded that “composition” is much bigger than the narrow kinds of writing taught in schools every day and that comics, memes, social media posts, newspaper essays, protest signs, blogs, fanfiction, text messages, and so much more are all a part of the writing-rich society we live in.

Try something outside your comfort zone. Writers engage in learning how to write spoken word poems, how to perform those poems orally, how to hand-build a piece of pottery while thinking about composition, and how to rearrange a personal narrative to show that all personal experiences are linked to broad social and political contexts. These are hard for a lot of us, but we ask students in elementary, middle, and high schools to do things that are hard every day, so we embrace the challenge and take a leap of faith.

This really is about you. Teachers are always focused on others, and this magical space is really about them and the direction their writing takes them. This is a surprise for many fellows at first as Heather put it, “I remember being surprised…because I’d thought it would be more about instructional practices for working with student writers…It was only after struggling to express myself in the Institute that I fully understood why this approach was so important.”

Slowing down. We invite fellows to accept the gift of time, to revel in creating, making, exploring, experimenting, and thinking. We don’t tell them what they need to be doing in the classroom, we give them time to figure much of that out on their own as they work through the sometimes heart-wrenching process of putting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, to communicate something beyond themselves.

In a time when teachers are faced with unprecedented challenges and critique, many educators find refuge in a space like the Red Clay Writing Project. We honor teachers in preschool through the university level and other community settings. We support them using their power for good, and we help them cultivate their practice as writers, writing teachers, and leaders in ways that will benefit many generations to come.