Here’s a simple question that I like to ask folks whenever I have a chance to. And look — we’ve a chance right now:
When was the last time you wrote with your students?
Simple question, but I suspect the answer’s far from simple. I’ve heard lots of excuses when I’ve asked that question. Usually, I hear something like, “Well, I’d like to be doing that, but we’re just so busy.” Or “I’m not a writer.”1
I don’t care how busy you are, or how important your other tasks are — writing is a foundational skill that demands a presence in your classroom on a regular basis. And that writing should involve you doing writing as well as assigning it. If I’ve learned nothing else from the National Writing Project, I’ve learned that.
Luckily, I’ve learned far more than that from my time working with, for and through the National Writing Project, a national network of professional development and advocacy for writing, the teaching of writing, and the teachers of writing. The group has influenced much of who I am as a writer, teacher and thinker, and I’m proud to be associated with them.
You might know that the National Writing Project is struggling for funding at the moment. Our federal government has eliminated NWP’s long-time government support in a series of foolish budget maneuvers. If you’d like to take action to help restore that funding, as I’m trying to do, I’d encourage you to move quickly. Here’s a collection of ideas about what you might do.
Make some time for writing
But back to writing. It never ceases to amaze me that we spend so much time talking about the importance of things that we do not do. My friend Chris Lehmann says that we don’t actually demonstrate our belief in the importance of something until we put it into our schedule – until we budget time for it.
So I ask again: when’s the last time you wrote with your students?
There are plenty of complicated things that deserve our attention. Our society’s complex and nuanced. And there are plenty of educational initiatives that we’ve got to pay attention to, and learn the vocabulary of, and begin to deconstruct so we can better understand them. The National Writing Project has been paying attention to many of them.2 They’ve also been working hard to ensure that teachers lead the way in learning — both for students and teachers themselves.
As John Norton told me recently:
NWP is one of the best, if not THE best, examples of teachers taking control of their own professional growth. Building a national teacher-run PD program back in the day was teacher leadership before teacher leadership was cool.
Cool, indeed. But you can engage in the most foundational work of the National Writing Project if you’ll do something very simple on a regular basis:
Write with your students.
It is essential that we write with our students. They need to see us struggle and grasp and stick and unstick and giggle and fume and wander and come back in order to get the right words in the right order to say the thing we think we need to be saying. They need to go through that, too. Regularly.
I use the word “writing” because it’s the right word for me — but perhaps you’d feel more comfortable if I said “composing” instead. Perhaps you’re fired up about helping students design and make things. That’s writing, composition, and I hope you’re designing and making things along with your students. Writing isn’t about English teachers. Human beings, all of us, are communicators. And we all need the practice to get better.
We’re not talking about a large outlay of time. A little bit of regular time can make a big difference. Ten minutes a day. Every few days. Regularly. Start or end your classes with time for writing about what’s important that day. Give students choices for what they might write about.
Oh, and one more thing — let them share what they wrote. Not every day, but at least sometimes, with you, or the class, or the world. There’s magic in our students and their ideas. It’s a crime to never let it surface.
You write to find out what you know
In the 21st century, it’s all about helping our students develop their 21st century skills, of course. And critical thinking is powered by thoughtful reflection and summary, which is fostered by writing. You don’t know what you know until you write. Sometimes, the person that you’re communicating with when you write is yourself.
It’s sexy to say that these are 21st century ideas. But what’s true today was true in the 20th century. In 1935, Francis Grinstead told a roomful of English teachers at the NCTE Annual Convention that:
The young people we are teaching to write are likely to think of “writers” as a class apart from themselves. The term “writer” or “author” immediately puts a man or woman on a pedestal. The first thing that must be proved to the student is that human beings are writers.
When a student sees that those who do the writing of the world are human beings, and great writers in proportion as they are human beings – not in proportion to their freedom from grammatical errors – he begins to examine his own experiences and reactions as possible material. When he knows that writing exists for conveying information or ideas from one mind to another, he will try to write like himself instead of a prattling imitation of some current idol.
Help your students to recognize that writers are human beings. And that you, and they, are both.
If you’re an educational leader, you might be thinking: “Yes. I’ll encourage my teachers to write more with their students.” And thanks for that. But that’s not enough. You should be saying instead, “I will find time to write with my staff, to model for them what it is that writing together looks like.” Because it’s that important. And, you might learn a thing or two about each other as you write together. Consider it a form of play.
Of course, it’s easy to think something’s important but not remember to follow through. The federal government, while stressing the importance of education, keeps forgetting to fund programs, like the National Writing Project, that make a significant different in the lives of those they serve. Remember to write for them, too. Remember to write.
One last time – but a slightly different question – When’s the next time you’ll write with your students?
Your answer’d better be “Soon.”