“We are each of an unsocial, taciturn disposition, unwilling to speak, unless we expect to say something that will amaze the whole room, and be handed down to posterity with all the éclat of a proverb.”
When Darcy dances with Elizabeth at the Netherfield ball, he remains mostly silent, and Elizabeth decides that “it would be the greater punishment to her partner to oblige him to talk.” She tries to tease him out of his silence by claiming that neither of them will speak because they don’t want their speech to be less than perfect.
While I know that for Elizabeth, this is ironic, I also know that for many of my students, this is reality. While we probably also all know people who feel as if the world should hear their every thought, I think in our classrooms we have many students who remain silent even though their brains are churning with ideas.
This is also the trap for would-be writers. How many times have writing teachers walked by a student sitting in a desk, staring at a blank paper or blank computer screen? How many times have we participated in something like this conversation:
Teacher: Do you need some help here?
Student: I don’t know how to start.
Teacher: Well, what are some of your ideas?
Student: They’re all stupid.
What writing practices have helped me handle this conversation? Here are three. Two are classroom practices, and the third is a practice I haven’t done much with yet in the classroom but that is helping me handle the fear of being less than amazing. When I handle my own fear, I can more easily help a student navigate his.
1. Keeping a Writer’s Notebook
My students have been keeping Writer’s Notebooks since my second year of teaching. After I found out about this tool, the notebook has become the single most important teaching tool that I use. Ever. No Question. Cannot live without it.
Why is this tool so important to me? Aside from the revolution that is collecting all small writing responses and assignments in one place rather than collecting them and grading them individually (because, you know, grading is my favorite thing ever), this tool allows students to have a place to write where no one will read it (except for me), a place for writing that needs to get out of our heads but isn’t ready for publication, a place for, let’s just admit it, really bad writing.
We sometimes forget that writing, like any skill, requires practice, and practice isn’t usually pretty. I can think of many of my first attempts at new skills: learning a new vocal technique, making pie crust, drawing. And that time we first tried grooming our standard poodle by ourselves. Not pretty. And definitely not for wide release.
So, why do we believe that writing will be any different? Why do we think that students can move mechanically through steps of writing without some mess? As Harry Noden points out in his book Image Grammar, artists have sketchbooks where they do this very thing, and notebooks are sketchbooks for writers.
Kelly Gallagher, in his book Teaching Adolescent Writers, says it this way:
“If a painter needs an easel to play with painting, and a basketball player needs a gym to play basketball, then it reasons that writers—especially developing writers—need a place to play with writing. In my class the place to play with writing is the writer’s notebook.”
3. Modeling Writing for Students
And here, my friends, is where the teacher terror comes in. Any good writing teacher must see herself as a writer and must write. I’m not flexible about this. We should share our own writing with our students whenever we can.
Hence, the act of modeling. And by modeling, I don’t mean only sharing finished pieces of writing, although that’s a place to start if this is a new classroom practice. By modeling, I mean writing something on the spot in front of your students, either on your own or collaboratively with the class.
This can get ugly, folks. Sometimes I can’t think of a word, or the sentences aren’t coming together, or I get to the end of a paragraph or a poem and realize that everything is in the wrong place. But this is the real creative process. Pull back the curtain and reveal it.
Why? It’s important, I think, for students to understand that writing is a skill, like any other skill, that is learned and practiced. We have these cultural ideas about artistry, writing in particular, that seem like cultural remnants of the age of the Romantics. We like to think that really good writers have ideas and talent given to them from some kind of “inspiration,” like the Greek muses or Oberon’s magic fairy juice. We forget that, in reality, most published writers work very, very hard.
I stayed far away from the blogging world for a long time because I share Elizabeth’s ironically stated insecurity. Blogging to me feels like exposure. There’s little room and time to perfect every post, at least at the level I like to revise and perfect.
I debated about putting my own writing online, especially my classroom model writing. It’s rough. It’s mid-process. So why publish it in such an unfinished state?
This is what I ask my students to do when I want them to share their writing in class. I’m asking them to share a piece that they have written in less than one class period. I am asking them to share a piece in its beginning stages. I believe that I only have the right to do that if I’m willing to expose my own writing process. And let me tell you, if I can share my writing with the Internet, I’m sure I can share it with students.
I participate in all of these practices myself. I have multiple writer’s notebooks full of ideas that no one will ever see, or want to see. Collecting my writing in notebooks gives me a wealth of ideas to mine for published pieces. I am trying to model writing more and more in my classroom. And I’m here on this blog.
Sharing my writing, even and perhaps especially unrevised writing, improves my own humility, which in turn improves my empathy for students. I cannot teach what I do not know, whether that be becoming a better writer or becoming a better human being.
In my classroom, these two endeavors are intertwined.
Gallagher, K. (2006). Teaching Adolescent Writers. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.
Noden, H.R. (2011). Image Grammar: Teaching Grammar as Part of the Writing Process. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.