A writing teacher writes

I’ve been writing for a long time. I’ve been writing a lot recently. I’ve been writing regularly, too, for about 18 months. I have been writing.

It has been great.

I love writing–here in this blog, for my classes, in journals (physical notebooks), in documents that no one sees, in administrative reports, in fiction/poetry books I’ve been working on since 2006. But for the last four years, I’ve been struggling to figure out what I wanted to write that was really in my heart as a writer–the book that I knew was in me, by, for, and of my professional life–something that mattered to me as a writer but also to me as a teacher. I was sure when I started the formal, university part of my career that I knew what I was doing… had a project all lined up and ready to go–even a prestigious academic press that wanted to go steady with me. I fell out of love. Or rather composition/rhetoric started flirting with me, seriously, and had been since 2007, and it’s now captured my attention and heart like nothing else ever will, I suspect.

I love scholarly archival work, especially anything having to do with the Victorians, but for four solid years, I’ve kept working my way around to something else entirely. I’d fall in love with an analysis or archival project, but my time would be pulled into paying attention to teaching and pedagogy, constantly, all the time, every minute, consistently. I need long periods of time to dig into archival work, to gather, to contemplate, to weave, to synthesize, to put my hands on artifacts and texts. Period. It’s not the right time, not right now. It will be again, because I love that work, and a book about the Victorians and publishing practices and copyright and IP truly, madly, deepy matters to me, so I’m fine with believing it will be in my way when I’m ready for it to be in my way, to be my path.

For now, the right thing is creating something about writing and teaching, a book that is more than a theoretical treatise or a rundown of hipster pedagogies. I need something that is more personal than that and more defining professionally. I need something that will make me greater than the sum of my parts, a book that is about me as a writer and a teacher, a scholarly treatment of what I’m doing with my professional life.

This is the working title of that book:

A Writing Teacher Writes: A Teaching Memoir, Creative Nonfiction, Pedagogical History, and a Writing Party, All in One Book

I’ve spent a long time being inspired by writers and writing teachers, writing, thinking about writing, writing writing curriculum, even. I started teaching writing in the fall quarter, 1992, twenty years ago this coming fall. In that time, I spent about 10 years working in publishing and creating teaching materials for K-college. I taught a lot of different things, such as the short story, poetry, British literature, freshman writing, novels, writing pedagogy, creative nonfiction (coming next fall), professional writing. I’ve taught little kids, medium kids, big kids, college kids, and adults.

This book is about how I am, right now, dealing with who I really became (when I wasn’t looking), what I really do (when I sit down and quantify it all), who I really was (when I think about who I thought I was), and how I really got here (it’s exactly like Duck Dodgers’s map to Planet X–below). It’s an unconventional story with a lot of twists and turns, and I like it, and what’s more, I need to share it now. And it needs to be open. It might be a warning, an inspiration, a dare, a support network, fiction and nonfiction, or entertainment.

I Planned My Professional Life Based on Duck Dodger's Map to Planet X. Yes. Yes, I did.

I’m not ready to lay out the whole thing here–I’m working on that–but I am ready to talk about a part of it. This part:

The National Writing Project (NWP) personally and professionally exerted great influence over me. I’ve read about them, been loosely affiliated with sites (through strangely twisted publishing connections and acquaintances), and always been a big fan.

Were you crushed when you found out the federal funding was entirely cut for NWP? I was as angry as I’ve ever been about a short-sighted government budget cut. I sighed and sent off a letter of outrage to my congress folk with little hope for change.

But voila, change is afoot. Not because of me, but because of many and the merit of the NWP. The Fed recently awarded NWP $11.3 million in funding. Thank you, Uncle Sam, I can rest easy now. That money will be spent to train 3,000 teachers in teaching writing (and more), who will then train more teachers in teaching writing, so thousands of students will have opportunities to write in new and innovative ways.

Right on. Write on.

I knew that writing teachers wouldn’t let this incredible program fade away. Too many have benefited from it to let it die quietly or at all. Now it can thrive again, until the next funding cycle, at least.

There are many things I love about the NWP, one thing I learned from that group (in a number of ways) at a very young age–before I ever taught a writing workshop, before I ever taught a composition class is that seeing how writing develop is the coolest thing ever. Watching an expert writer writing is a great teaching/learning tool. Seeing the deliberate and thoughtful evolution of a text was a REVELATION for me the first time I saw such a thing happen, and then I sought out that sort of knowledge in texts I read, in writers I knew. Process was not all, but it was a big part of why I stopped seeing writing as magic. Witnessing a manuscript written, rewritten, crossed out, ripped apart, sheared off, added to, and rewritten again was like seeing the wizard behind the curtain. Writing wasn’t elusive anymore. Writing became a choice.

Just like listening to an expert reader reading is a wonderful way to interact with a text, having a writing mentor to watch and learn from is transformative (or can be). The details of shared reading or guided reading are too many to go into here, but I learned a lot about shared writing and teaching literacy from NWP and those that organization trained, and I learned that literacy is rhetoric is literacy is rhetoric–and all that is connected to choices, and strategies, not just content and skills we own (skill is a thing we know how to do, strategy is knowing when to do it). And I just started to understand all that again because a friend of mine, Trish Serviss, is working on an article about literacy and rhetoric. (It’s hard to separate what I know from what I’m learning every minute, but her ideas about how literacy and rhetoric are interconnected rock. She made me think about this issue and my book and inspired me to write this post.)

I was tangentially part of several NWP summer institutes in which teachers wrote and wrote a lot and talked about writing and teaching writing. From those experiences, I learned about the history and theories of writing instruction. I read lots of books and articles about how teachers got young students to write, to talk about writing, to work through their texts and produce amazing results. Even the youngest students acquired an understanding of process (so very crucial to demystifying writing), but also, they developed habits that translated to action for how to talk about writing and mentor each other as writers (and I saw this in classrooms I visited). And many times, I read about teachers who used shared writing to teach. In my previous career, I even wrote a monograph about shared writing (many monographs, in fact, that now appear to have been purchased and are for sale as some part of a large education corporation, but when I wrote/edited those products, it was for a nonprofit company–just want to be clear about that). Okay. I got sidetracked in a bad way there. Sorry.

Back to it: shared writing. In my college-level vision of this, I’m writing with students and for students. Lots of college writing professors do this. But perhaps not enough. In my content classes (literature or comp theory), I write alongside my students (always–now it’s online always). Why do this? Because I can. But mostly because I am a writer, and most importantly, I can do two other things that way: 1) I can share additional thinking outside the classroom, and 2) students will see me writing, and see my development over time, see the ways texts may change over time… over time. I grow all the time as a writer and fall down as a writer and, once in a great and grand while, I have a sentence or two work out in a lovely fashion. As one who professes that writing is vital to our human flourishing, I have to be a visible writer, not just someone who talks about writing or uses texts others have written to explain what I think good writing is or can be.

Okay, this is a pain. I admit it. It’s a pain in the way that it is actually sometimes painful to make time for writing, in the way that it is sometimes painful when I feel like I’m not doing a good enough job for my students. And I really hate it when I make errors. I’ll never quite get over the shame of errors. But I’m getting better at letting go of that in lieu of good thinking. And good thinking trumps correctness all the time, because revision is writing, or writing is revision. If and when I need to revise for thinking or clarity or correctness, well, shoot, I’ll just do that. In the meantime, I’ll write, thank you very much.

It is the work of the NWP that informed the way I think about writing pedagogy, the way I teach, the way I am a writer. The below core principles of NWP are the kinds of things that every writing teacher/professor or writer who mentors should think about, infuse into every moment of every class, the beginning of which is being a agent of reform.

Yes. One of the reasons I am a writing teacher who writes, why I teach, is that I want to be an agent of reform. I don’t want to create reform, or mandate reform, though as a WPA I do that, I want to embody change, I want to be reform. I want to be change, be open, be freedom.

Man, I hope that’s how I spend the whole rest of my life–being reform.

NWP Core Principles

Why NWP Utterly Rocks: The Core Principles


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One response to “A writing teacher writes

  1. Pingback: Where I took my mind for spring break | Writing All Year

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