The Beginning: When I became a Teacher Who Writes

On a hot August day, 2009, I stepped in front of the first group of students who I could call “my students.” 

Prior to this moment, I had some teaching experience: camp, Sunday School, Student Teaching. Those experiences were short, usually guided by someone else who crafted a role that I simply stepped into. 

This was my first real teaching assignment. 

Two weeks prior, I arrived on campus, and an administrator led me outside, across the parking lot, and up a carpeted ramp to my “satellite” classroom. It was large and had two full windows; I wasn’t complaining. I was so excited to get a “head start” on planning and classroom prep, since teacher in-service wouldn’t start for another full week. 

(Now, I try to laugh at the naivety of my past self, thinking I had ample time to plan for the year. Another part of me wants to cue the chorus, alerting an audience that I was about to be hit by a freight train, and one week of planning would not get me off the track or stop this train.)

That August day, I stepped inside my classroom, met my students, and tried to get expectations established and a routine going. At this point in my career, I was of course mostly borrowing and trying things on, to see if I could fit into the methods outlined by teachers like Harry Wong. 

(I was so eager to read his writing, and so poor after I graduated college, that I ended up acquiring First Days of School after I contacted the local university library, and was sent to the education college to borrow it from their private collection.This lead me to email a professor I’d never met and travel to a campus I’d never been on. And the guy just handed me the book, saying he’d like it back in a month or so. Maybe he was eager to have eager teachers like me in his city.)

So I tried on, I tested out, and I watched my students, trying to figure out what would create the best classroom learning experience for them.

Pushing my memory back to that first year, one conclusion, one observation stands out: my students were quite well behaved. 

Let’s be clear: I taught middle schoolers. Of course my classroom devolved into what can only be described as the tornadic atmosphere that accompanies teaching this age group – no matter the district, no matter the demographic. Guiding middle school students through learning guarantees some level of chaos. 

But generally, they did the things I asked, and listened when I talked – well-behaved students. 

And then we started to write. And wouldn’t you know – they had well-behaved writing. Yes, they had issues with punctuation and sentence structure, but overall, well-behaved, generic, void-of-life writing. 

If I asked for an essay on their best friend, they would give me a clearly outlined, 5 paragraph composition detailing three things that make their friend the best. If I asked for a poem with a rhyme structure and 2 similes, they would produce little diddies that indeed rhymed and included two comparisons using “like” or “as”. “I fell out of love, as fast as a sack of potatoes falls from a skyscraper.” “My dog is as soft as a kitten.” “The sun was like a hot egg in the sky.”

(I am compelled to stop here and include a disclaimer. I know that many teachers struggle to get kids to turn things in. I shouldn’t complain too much that the students were actually turning in work that technically met the standards and expectations. But if you teach writing, you know that one of the toughest things to do is to get students to care about their writing. That’s the real goal of all writing teachers. If students don’t care about writing, it’s a good chance they won’t turn anything in – though I would argue that these students are also afraid to write, even about things they care about. If students don’t care about writing, they may also turn in work stripped of life and passion – these students are probably also afraid as well. Their little middle school hearts say, “Better turn in something I don’t care about, so if my teacher hates it, I won’t die inside.”)

Grading the compositions, I died inside. I read writing from students, but I didn’t see my students in their writing. I occasionally saw a glimpse – but only a little spark of what I knew was a burning ball of passion in their middle school heart. 

I found myself repeating in my teaching what some struggle with in their writing: I was telling, not showing. My teaching contained phrases that sounded correct, but didn’t guide students towards better writing. 

Problem: We need to work on improved word choice. 

Solution: Create a list of dead words; ask students to select “high-points” words.

Result: Cue student grabbing words haphazardly from a thesaurus. 

Problem: Lack of interesting description.

Solution: To make writing more interesting, we could include more dynamic literary devices.

Result: see above, re: similes

Problem: Sentence fragments, run-ons, spelling issues (which every English teacher is held responsible to fix, as revealed in any discussion with a content area teacher who laments “what are you teaching these kids? None of them can write.” I believed this was an area I could fix.)

Solution: Okay, well, let’s at least work to improve grammar with a purposefully-chosen grammar lesson. 

Result: grammar improves marginally for 15% of students, which happen to be the ones already good at grammar. “Why would I work to make something sound good when I don’t care how it sounds in the first place? I just want to get my grade and go.”

Real Problem: Students don’t seem to care about what they are writing:

Solution: To help students care, we could … choose our own topics? (Choice, I had been told, was good.)

Student Result: Watch students sit and stare at the wall for 5 minutes because they “don’t know what to write” or, more heart-wrenching, claim “I have nothing to say.” 

Teacher Result: Stand up, bang head against wall. Repeat.

In the end, my solutions were all of a similar vein: tell them to write better. I needed to show them how to care about writing and find their voice. I was at a loss, and I didn’t have the tools I needed to help my students out. All I could think of was to generate the same kinds of assignments, doggedly generating “solutions” in the hope that something would stick or spark or … I wanted to hear their voices, and I had no idea how to move towards this goal. 

I knew I couldn’t fix this problem this year. I didn’t fully realize the issue until the third quarter ended and I did not have it in me for a fourth quarter turn around. That freight train had plowed right into me, and I was stuck to the front of it. The end of school was approaching and only then could I get off and collect myself. I was already looking toward the summer, now fully aware that I needed to spend months planning for the next year – not just one week. 

Real Solution: 

After school one spring day, I walked out of my classroom, down the ramp, across the parking lot, into the main building, and into my mentor teacher’s classroom. 

“Hi, Kris.”

“Hey Rachel, how’s it going?”

“Um, fine. Well, I am actually wondering if you know of any writing workshops or something I could do in the summer. I’m just not getting the writing I want from my students. I mean, it’s fine but…. I just think I need to build up my skill set here.”

Instantly – and I mean instantly, she didn’t even skip a beat – she said,

“There is a program every summer at UNL, called the Writing Project. I’ll email the guy in charge – I think there is still time to get you in.”

A few emails and a few months later, on a hot July day, in 2010, I entered a classroom at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln: excited and thoroughly unprepared. And the Writing Project welcomed me with open arms. 

Epilogue:

The Nebraska Writing Project (a local site of the National Writing Project) has helped me and my students through some dark, tough times. Writing for ourselves helped us laugh and genuinely get to know one another. Bit by bit, my students started to trust me and put some of themselves into their writing. They were willing to get on the train with me, and see where it would take us. These are stories for another time, and I hope you will join me as I share them.

Acknowledgements:

The teachers I’ve met through the Writing Project who guided me towards becoming the teacher I wanted to be – a teacher who helped students to write for themselves, not for a grade, or to complete a task, or to prove they read a book. That day in July, I didn’t know it yet, but these were going to become “my people”.

I met Robert Brooke, Diana Weis, Brenda Larabee, Sue Anderson, Bernice Olivas, Adam Hubrig and Fran Kaye – each of whom have taught me how to improve my craft; each of whom have given me grace when I’ve floundered and failed. They have helped me move from a scared newly-minted teacher, stuck to the front of a freight train, to a passenger, to an engineer (one who frequently questions why the train is moving so fast. What are we trying to prove? No one is enjoying this ride of education; everyone is to some degree freaking out. Stop shoveling coal in! Let’s slow down).

I’ve met Nancie Atwell, Linda Rief, Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher – practicing and published teachers whose work has informed my approach to my students as writers –  and my own writing. 

I continually return to these teachers, and the texts they’ve published, because they encourage an approach to teaching that is not prescriptive, but a process – one that is ongoing and never ending and filled with discovery. Teachers who are Writing Project teachers approach problems with a “what if?” and “let’s write about that” mentality.