As I work with teachers in schools across the district and on all elementary grade levels, I encounter a consistent hesitation that sits right below the surface of their work with students. Teacher as writer. Let's admit it...writing is hard. I am talking about compostitional writing. Process writing. And, scariest of all, writing in front of your students.
"Teachers should write so they understand the process of writing from within...If you experience the despair, the joy, the failure, the success, the work, the fun, the drudgery, the surprise of writing you will be able to understand the composing experiences of your students and therefore help them understand how they are learning to write." Donald Murray, A Writer Teaches Writing 2004, Boston, MA: Heinle Publishing. (pg. 74)
Truth. But you can see where many teachers just can't manage it..
And that brings us to the heart of this post...how do teachers dig deep and push past the feelings of low confidence that come from limited experiences? How do teachers do the work that is necessary to raise the level of their teaching from good to great?
I'm here to tell you that it's not that hard! Just do it!
I know. Those of you who know me are thinking, "Oh, easy for you to say. You are passionate about writing. You are a writer. Of course, it is easier for you! But what about the rest of us?"
You are right. So, I'm going to use compositional drawing as my context for this blog post. I am not an artist. Any drawing past coloring in a coloring book takes me way out of my comfort zone. Once I left my childhood, I put away any thoughts of drawing. I placed them, along with the charcoal, colored pencils, markers, watercolors, etc. in a box and closed the lid. And now, I am a writing teacher working with kindergartners and first graders whom I am asking to compose and tell stories through drawings and words to share with the world.
You are right. I am comfortable writing with and in front of my students. But I am soooo uncomfortable drawing in front of them. So, we'll begin there.
Serendipitously, I had the honor and pleasure of attending the Joan Oates Institute at the University of Richmond this past June. Our guest artist was Lynda Barry, a writer, cartoonist, author, college professor - the list of her accomplishments goes on and on. She is a true joy and an inspiring artist. So lucky for us, she spent two full days teaching us how to be inspired through art - specifically, the art of drawing cartoons. She taught us a rudimentary method for drawing ourselves, using artist Ivan Brunetti's style of creating characters using simple geometric shapes. Her advice to us all was to just do it! Draw, draw, draw. Everyday. And your art will improve. It will evolve. All you have to do is draw.
Does that sound familiar? The habits of mind that a writer uses to create a story with words are the same habits of mind that a cartoonist, or illustrator, uses to create a story with pictures - idea, organization, craft, voice, tone, genre, audience, purpose, etc. But you must do it!
And if I am going to ask my students to do this work, then, like Donald Murray advises, I'd better try to understand the process from within.
Last week, I was trying to help the students understand what making a movie in your mind means. I asked if any of them had seen the movie Cinderella. Some had, and most knew the story. So, I drew a picture in front of them, on the board, using my very rudimentray drawing skills. I wanted to show them how in just three simple pictures, I could tell the story of Cinderella anxiously awaiting the prince, and then the prince holding up the glass slipper, and, finally, Cinderella's joy when the slipper fits her foot.
Here are my drawings:
Whether we or our students are using words or pictures, we are all artists telling stories. And just as I celebrate their approximations, I will celebrate my own.
Donald Murray says, "Teachers of writing do not have to be great writers, but they should have frequent and recent experience in writing." (pg. 74) Teachers, I encourage you to do so! I don't think we should ever ask our students to do something that we, ourselves, won't try. It may very well be uncomfortable. It will be challenging.
But, it will also be rewarding, both professionally and personally. Your students will see you as an authentic learner, right alongside of them. When my drawing of the glass slipper was less than, um, accurate, the students and I laughed a little. And then, I erased it and tried again. That, my friends, was a lesson in revision :)
Happy writing! Happy drawing!