Just beyond the walls: Teachers as writers in virtual space
This article addresses the notion of teachers as writers — providing reasons why a personal writing practice can improve instructional practice, offering a variety of online networks and other sites to help teacher-writers connect with peers, and suggesting ways to bring this idea into the classroom.
Teaching, like writing, can be a very solitary experience. We close our doors and it is mostly just us, the teacher, alone with them, the students. We may be lucky to encounter a few interruptions during the day — perhaps a colleague is searching for a misplaced book, or another student has a message — but for the most part, teachers spend the bulk of the day alone.
Writers are often thrust into the same situation: alone with their thoughts, scribbling or typing away in a quiet workspace away from the noise. While there certainly is merit to the need for focus, there are many benefits to collaboration and connection with others as both teachers and as writers. And with the emergence of the Web 2.0 world, the physical space in which we teach and write can be extended, virtually, beyond the physical walls around us, allowing us to expand the reach of our professional learning communities. As a result, there are numerous opportunities for teachers to connect with their peers as writers.
Not long ago, I was in a workshop with the Western Massachusetts Writing Project where we were given a prompt based on the poem by George Ella Lyons called “Where I’m From …” Each member of this small group of teacher-writers worked hard to craft a poem that captured who we think we are through where we came from — what “space” shaped our thinking. After the prompt, we shared our poems with each other. I was excited to listen to what others had written and happy to have an audience for my own poem. But then, the workshop was over. We closed up our notebooks, walked out the door and most of the poems died then and there.
But not mine.
A week or so later, I was at an online writing site that I helped create for the National Writing Project — a virtual place for writers to connect which we call the iAnthology. While at the site, I noticed that someone else — a fellow teacher named Sharolette, from the Ozark Writing Project in Missouri — had posted her own “Where I’m From” poem. I remembered the workshop and dug out my notebook, finding my piece of writing.
I am from music
from the beating sounds of drums in the basement
that mix rhythm and rhyme in times when discord
hits the ears like fire
I am from sound
from the dancing stems along the lines of the composition
that move in synchronicity with our lives:
moving towards some resolution
I am from the muse
whose whispers tell tales of triumph and sadness
captured in song.
I am from music
By the time I had posted my own poetic response to Sharolette, there were four to five other “Where I’m From” poems posted right next to mine, and more soon followed, until the one poem by Sharolette had inspired a handful of us — from Massachusetts, from New York, and beyond — to respond in kind, and to offer feedback for revision. It became a conversation of poems and of place, and the threads of writing in this online space gave us time to read, reflect, and respond in ways that might not have happened if we were gathered together in the same physical space. And given our geographic locations, gathering together in the same physical space would have been almost impossible anyway.
I was not alone as a writer in this writing community — despite the fact that I wouldn’t have been able to pick out my new writing friends from a police lineup. And in just a little time, through the sharing of writing, I had learned to trust these other teacher-writers and I believe they had come to trust me, too. This sense of connection is the power of networking in the online world.
Why we write
One does not have to look too far to find opportunities to write with others in an online space, but it seems as if most teachers in these spaces are sharing lesson plans or ideas around technology in the classroom. These efforts, of course, are appreciated. But as a teacher of writing (and one who is deeply connected to the work of the National Writing Project), I truly believe in the philosophy that teachers who teach writing should also be writing, too, and not just giving students assignments.
The National Writing Project (NWP) works off a philosophy that balances the teacher as writer with the teacher as practitioner. In 2008, the NWP put out a report that uses standardized test scores to show that students of teachers who are involved in the NWP network make noticeable gains in their writing achievement.
In my classroom, where I teach writing to sixth graders, I am always sitting in the students’ midst, writing with them. I share my drafts, make visible my revisions and talk through my thinking process as I write.
But, to be honest, I also enjoy the company of adult writers. In particular, I like hanging out with teachers who are writers. But given the time constraints of our lives and the difficulty in scheduling writing groups in a place that is convenient for all, I have turned to online companionship for my urge to write and compose.
There are many reasons for teachers to become writers, including:
- Modeling writing in different genres for your students. I share my comics, poems, songs, short stories, and more with my students. In doing so, I hope I am showing them ways that writing informs my life, just as I preach the power of writing to them for their lives.
- Whenever I develop a project or a writing assignment, I complete it, too, first, so that I can walk through what I expect my students to walk through. This trial-run writing also provides me with some samples to show students.
- I develop a real understanding of those students who struggle with writing when I am a writer, too. That frustration can be real for me, too. It is not some abstract idea when my students are writers with me.
- I often “talk out” my writing process with my students, trying to find ways to demystify the experience of developing an idea in writing.
If you’re looking for inspiration, the essay collection Educators as Writers: Publishing for Personal and Professional Development, edited by Carol Smallwood, offers a further exploration of why teachers should be writers.
Where to write
About four years ago, as I was just starting to explore the online world, I came across a blog called The Reflective Teacher. The blogger ran a feature called “Day in a Sentence” that piqued my interest. The premise is quite simple: Boil down your week or a day in your week to a single reflective sentence, and then share it. As soon as I began, I realized the power of this assignment: I was writing in the same space, with similar themes, as other educators from around the world. We were documenting our teaching lives — and sometimes personal lives — one sentence at a time each week. A sentence may not seem like much, but done right, a few words can pack a lot of meaning. (This blog is no longer available.)
Meanwhile, a few of the 100-plus teachers who are part of the Day in a Sentence list began transferring the idea of concise summary sentence writing into the classroom, using sites like VoiceThread, technology like podcasting, and even images to add to the single-sentence reflections. Just recently, in fact, I had my own students boil down their elementary school years into a single sentence. Their one-sentence summaries will appear in their sixth grade yearbook.
Another example of these virtual writing connections can be found at the Two Writing Teachers blog, where hosts Stacey and Ruth not only share best practices around teaching writing, but also offer up activities for visitors to do their own writing.
One of the most active of these activities is a special writing activity they call Slice of Life, in which writers contribute something small going on in their day that can have larger meaning through the lens of reflective writing. During March, Stacey and Ruth offer up a challenge to teachers who visit their blog: Write a Slice of Life for every day of the month and comment on the Slices written by others. Early in March 2010, there were dozens of teachers sharing their writing at the site, and by doing so, they were connecting in ways that would not be possible without an online hub such as Two Writing Teachers.
So, where are some places for you to turn to connect and write with other teachers?
- Slice of Life from the Two Writing Teachers blog
- Day in a Sentence from the Kevin’s Meandering Mind blog
- Writer’s Workshop for Teachers from the English Companion Ning (Note: log-in required.)
- Writing Poetry with Images from the Bud the Teacher blog
Or you could start your own online writing group with colleagues, virtual or not, that uses a social networking space as a private writing place. While some groups have relied on previously free sites like Ning to launch an online space, it’s important to remember the only constant on the Web is change — as many Ning users discovered when the site announced the end of its free sites in 2010. The Centre for Learning and Performance Technologies publishes a list of social networking platforms to help users navigate the variety of options.
If the concept of managing a social network is too much, then you could start a blog that invites your circle of colleagues (or the world, if you make the site public) to post their own writing. Blogging platforms such as Blogger, Edublogs, Wordpress and others are easily accessible. A good example of using a blog for writing within a specific community is the Blackwater Writing Project blog, where a moderator posts a prompt periodically and the teacher-writers then respond via blog posts.
Any online writing space, however, benefits from some framework of expectations for participant writers, just as our own classroom-based writing workshops benefit from shared expectations of our young writers. Such understandings give the writer room to share, but also an expected forum to accept feedback from others.
Anne Elrod offers one possible model for a virtual writing group in her article “Reflections on an Online Teachers Writers Workshop” on the National Writing Project website. Elrod proposes the following writing project:
Each calendar month, participants will post at least one piece of original writing to the conference. This could be poetry, fiction, professional writing, creative nonfiction, or anything else. Over the next two weeks, participants will read those pieces and provide thoughtful, written responses and comments. Conversation will then continue as it develops naturally, providing further clarification and response as we revise.
The assignment is followed by a calendar listing due dates for each piece and subsequent responses.
The National Writing Project has adapted strategies for teachers responding to their peers’ writing via feedback. At the private writing network that I help manage, we have found these feedback guidelines to be helpful, particularly because the writer determines the kind of feedback he or she wants to receive. And given the potential for “misreading” an online comment, we have found these three categories of response minimize potential hard feelings in the peer feedback process:
- Bless: This means the writer is seeking encouragement and positive feedback.
- Press: This means the writer wants the reader to cast a critical eye and offer up some constructive ways to improve the piece of writing for future revision.
- Address: This means the writer knows there are areas of weakness in the piece and he or she is asking for comments and feedback around specific sections.
Bringing the idea into the classroom
The main rationale for encouraging teachers to become writers is that by practicing writing themselves, they are more attuned to the frustrations and success of students who are assigned writing projects. Just as it is difficult to teach a child to juggle if you have never juggled before, it is difficult to teach a young person to write well if you don’t write yourself.
And there are more and more places online for students and young writers to connect, just as teachers are finding more spaces for sharing writing and connecting with other educators.
Here are a few examples:
- Sue Waters of the Edublogs organization helps organize the annual Student Blogging Challenge, in which students publish their writing via blogs. The students are not only the writers, but they are encouraged to comment on the blogs of others in the challenge, too, creating a series of links among participants.
- The Youth Voices network — which is managed in part by Paul Allison, Chris Sloan, and others — is aimed at high-school students who connect with other students around the world through writing, media creation, and more. It’s a powerful social networking place for integrating technology and writing together.
- Twitter can also be a way to connect young writers, although teachers should use their own judgment and school policy around social networking before diving in. George Mayo is one of those teachers I look to for innovation and not long ago, George had his students writing a short story collaboratively with other elementary and middle school students from six different countries. The story — entitled @manyvoices — developed first on Twitter, then was collaboratively edited on a wiki, and finally was published in book form through Lulu Publishing.
Online writing communities are powerful. Our iAnthology, for example, has close to 200 teacher-writers and more than 3,000 pieces of writing that range from short stories, memoirs, and poetry to professional writing that our members are doing in hopes of getting their ideas around teaching practice published. While in the end, the teacher and the writer have to close the door and mostly go it alone — either with the pen or with the students — they can still feel virtually connected to a community of fellow educators and writers through their own online reflective practice.