by Harmony Button
“Writing about our experiences, figuring out what they mean, and then hearing that writing discussed and questioned lets us create a kind of productive detachment from our own lives which makes our identities visible to us. We realize how our lives are shaped by our race, class, age, gender, regional, and religious backgrounds, and see how they could easily have developed very differently. We can become more open and less judgmental of the lives of others, like our students, or the parents of students. The more teachers become aware of their own identities, the more likely they are to see their students more clearly.”
— Meg Peterson
This week’s writing tip is focused on teachers’ writing and writing lives, and is based primarily in this article: Why Teachers’ Writing Matters.
Like many wonderful things writing-related, I got this article from Casey O’Malley, director of our Writing Center. Next week’s Writing Across the Curriculum digest will address some of the philosophies and strategies of our Writing Center — but for this week, the attention is turned on you, dear teachers.
Here’s the theory: writing as a learning tool is as useful to teachers as it is to students. The writing process strips away all the politics of timing and vocal articulation that are present in conversations — you have the luxury of having your say, examining your words, re-evaluating your ideas, and then refining your expression. You get to consider your tone of voice by looking it in the eye, rather than hearing it come out of your mouth. If you want to hear yourself, rather than just express yourself, put it in writing. (Do not mistake this for a claim that written communication is more effective or valuable than conversational communication — it is just a different creature, and one that we tend not to expect from students as often as we expect them to engage in verbal discussions).
The mastering the skill of “productive detachment” is essential to student success, not just in their writing assignments, but in their ability to see themselves as flexible, adaptable learners. We talk about it in terms of how to respond to tests or academic set-backs, but sometimes writing projects help a student to internalize this tactic of “productive detachment.” And one way we can show students that this is a healthy way to gain insight into their own thought processes is by practicing it, ourselves.
There are lots of ways to show your students your own writing process. Here are some ideas:
1. Plug in the overhead projector. Embrace the awkward process of composing an answer to a writing prompt in real time, with student input and feedback. Let them see you struggle a little, misspell words, write sentences that don’t make sense… and then fix them. Talk them through the bits that you’re happy with, and the ones that you’re not satisfied with, yet.
2. Share models of your own thinking or writing. If you give your students a writing assignment in a class, see if you can make one of your own, and read it to them after they have already turned theirs in. Or, if they’re really struggling to know what you’re looking for, read it to them ahead of time (or something parallel if you don’t want them to get fixated on your version and feel like they have to write something exactly like it).
3. Find ways of offering bits of your own writing on your home pages or Canvas accounts. Look for opportunities to create real-world connections to your subject matter. Offer a study tip of the week, a contemplation of a favorite quotation, an anecdote of the time you were chased up a tree by a mama moose, or a memory of the first teacher who really turned you on to math.
Teachers are humans, and students benefit from seeing their teachers as thoughtful human beings. Writing is a practice that often reveals the humanity of the author, whether it highlights personal experiences or just reveals the thought process of the speaker. When students see their teachers as writers, it helps them learn that writing is a lifelong skill, not just a task that is unique to the school environment. Writing is framed as a normal life process, not just an assignment or hoop we expect them to jump through.