by Deb Kelt & Amber Warrington
In a statement that has nearly gone viral in the teaching community, Nancie Atwell urged new teachers to choose the private sector over public schools. Though Nancie’s statement received much press, her words don’t stand alone. Often we hear from teachers leaving their beloved classrooms, stating they “just don’t know what to do about” the many problems they see. These stories crop up all the time on our news feeds — stories about testing, standards, mandates, burn out, frustration, hopelessness.
Instead of telling stories that offer few solutions, stories that seem finite, stories that offer endings rather than beginnings, we urge writing teachers to consider and embrace counterstories of their work — to find hope and possibility in the nuanced work we do with both student writers and colleagues in public schools.
We look back on our writing classrooms, and we remember moments of struggle–when the test loomed over us like a grim reaper, when curriculum mandates seemed to push against or even contradict the teaching of authentic writing. But despite these struggles, we found moments when the power and joy of writing with students was undeniable. Like many writing teachers we know, we have stories of students making choices about their writing topics, following their own purposes and processes, and publishing for real audiences. Stories of a student crouched over her notebook, trying to make sense of the Boston Marathon bombings: “I ask a lot of questions, Miss.” Or a student remembering his home in Mexico: “I lived on a ranch where there’s one pound of beans, one bag of tortillas, every week. Poor family, like any others.” Poems detailing father/daughter dances during joyful quinceaneras. Courageous letters from students coming out to their friends and families. Students screaming back at Hurricane Katrina. Fictional stories about falling in love for the first time. Editorials defending graffiti as an artform. There was beauty in the process, in the stories, in the way we worked together to craft meaning on paper.
These stories clarified our decision making. The more we found space for writing, the more we wanted to carve out even more time for students and their words. What’s more, we started to see the connections between the act of writing and the art of teaching. Just as we look at our work with an eye of revision — imagining what a piece could be, what possibilities it may hold — we developed the same eye for our teaching. What could we make? What else is possible? How could this mandate become something authentic and real? The act of creating moved our teaching from inertia to possibility. We may have faced curriculum constraints, but we no longer felt stuck.
Finding time and space to do this work was not always easy, in part because of the well-documented pressures cited by many. But it’s not impossible. While teachers may feel stranded in the midst of mandated curricula and standardized testing, pushing back against this isolation is critical to bringing change to our classrooms. Through working with others, we found the courage to put writing at the center of our curricula. In our local National Writing Project community, we have studied with fellow teachers in summer institutes, book clubs, study groups, and Saturday workshops. In these places, we do not struggle alone; we make meaning together, lift up one another, and work collectively for change across schools in our city.
On a Saturday in January, we gathered with writing teachers from across Austin to talk about how to advocate for authentic writing instruction with administrators, parents, and colleagues. The days started with conversations about ways to share with coworkers what we knew about good writing instruction.Teachers talked about the struggles of pushing against mandated curricula and of talking with English departments about moving away from prompts and giving students choice in their writing topics. Table groups compiled resources to share with principals to explain what authentic writing instruction looks like and how it benefits student writers. We heard comments of understanding: “I struggle with that too” and statements of encouragement: “Let’s form a study group to talk more about this.” Teachers shared practices that sustain them during difficult times, from practicing yoga to taking evening walks to writing in notebooks. Writing teachers in this community have found a place where they can inquire, learn, express frustrations, share teaching practices, discuss, laugh, problem-solve.
It’s hard to feel hopeless when we have others beside us working toward the same goals. And it’s hard to leave when our classrooms become communities of writers. All these stories lift us, inspiring us to push for more change. We hope to hear more counternarratives from classrooms and teacher communities; we encourage you to craft your stories this summer and make those stories public, to both reflect on your practice and to give our profession a voice.
Even when the noise of standardization becomes deafening, we can hear each other, we can hear our students, and we can hear ourselves: We have many reasons to stand behind teaching writing in public schools.
Deb taught English Language Arts and Reading in public schools for 20 years. Thirteen of those years were spent in urban schools in Dallas and Austin, TX. She now teaches at the University of Texas at Austin and co-directs the Heart of Texas Writing Project.
Amber has taught college and high school writing courses and is currently a doctoral student working with preservice and inservice writing teachers and learning more about making writing curricula and assessment more meaningful and equitable for students.