by Meg Petersen
Children need to see adults writing. Cathy Fleischer’s post provides excellent tips for ways parents can encourage their children’s writing, including writing to and with them. And it makes sense that teachers of writing should write. Writing gives us a kind of authority (“author”-ity) that allows us to work more confidently with students. Through our own writing, teachers come to know the process from the inside out, and can thus share “insider knowledge” about how writers, and writing, work. After all, you wouldn’t hire a piano teacher for your child who didn’t play the piano. Writing teachers should write.
There is a deeper reason, however, for teachers of all subjects and levels to write about their lives and share these stories with each other. Writing and sharing narratives of our own experience helps us understand how our lives in and outside of the classroom are shaped by our identities and cultures. We can come to see our way of understanding the world as only one of many possible ways, allowing us to become aware of how our students’ lives may differ from our own. Parents would want their children’s teachers to have this kind of awareness, and writing can develop it.
To place teachers’ experiences in a cultural context, I use an assignment in my work with teachers and teacher candidates which connects personal experience to an historical event or cultural phenomenon. Responses to this assignment are rich and varied. One teacher candidate, Julia, wrote about how Barack Obama’s second inaugural speech helped her to accept her own sexuality. Rick, a second career teacher, wrote how his paper route allowed him to identify with Martin Luther King through following news stories about the civil rights leader. Sometimes the cultural event is central and sometimes it is more peripheral. Another assignment asks teacher candidates to reflect on their identities through focusing on an artifact. One pre-service teacher wrote about her Bible and the role of religion in her life, another about her tattoo and how it tied her to her regional identity. When teachers look at these kinds of experiences together, they become aware of how their lives are shaped by them.
While it is certainly important (and empowering) to see ourselves as writers, we learn just as much from seeing each other through our readers’ eyes. When teachers respond to each other’s drafts, we use a scheme called “Circles of Meaning.” At the center of the circle is the experience itself, encompassed by its personal meaning. A wider concentric circle represents how personal meanings are framed by cultural ones. Listening to others discuss your writing as if it were a work of literature can be quite powerful. As Julia put it, “Often we are so entrenched in our personal experiences that seeing beyond ourselves is difficult. Drawing connections, seeing the ‘big picture,’ becomes easier through writing.” Kristina said simply that this process “has helped me work on the puzzle of who I am and where I fit in the world.”
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.
This way of thinking will serve us well in our classrooms. We can call on this “productive detachment” to read our students’ texts differently, to appreciate that every life is lived within its own cultural framework. This process can work with our students as well, and parents can use it with children at home to gain more insight into who they are. When writing narratives in our classrooms, we can ask students what the experience meant to the child and how it might have been perceived differently. Reading our students’ stories and our students’ lives can help all of us to appreciate who our students are. Our students can also come to better understand their own lives, and to see the many possibilities that are open to them, and to all of us.
Supporting writing–especially teacher writing–is a group effort. Parents, students, and administrators can encourage teachers in this kind of composing by establishing and supporting inservice days focused on writing, asking teachers directly about their own writing projects, and suggesting helpful resources, like favorite books about writing. Together we can bring the benefits of teacher writing and writing for self-discovery into all classrooms.
Those interested in reading more about these ideas might consider:
Barbara Kamler’s Relocating the Personal
Meg Petersen is the Director of the National Writing Project in New Hampshire. She teaches at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire.