Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Teachers as Writers: You Can’t Teach Swimming from the Side of the Pool

Today I am pleased to offer a guest post from Cynthia Mershon on the importance of writing teachers being writers themselves. Cynthia is a former long-time literacy specialist and writing teacher and is currently a workshop presenter for Teachers College, Columbia University.

by Cynthia Mershon

During high school and college, I worked as a life guard and a swimming instructor.  Most of the children I met in swimming lessons were between the ages of five and ten – some had never had a swimming lesson, but some knew a little about swimming.  As a swimmer myself,  I appreciated the importance of being in the pool with them, standing beside them and talking with them as they clung to the wall or bobbed up and down in the shallow end of the pool. 

When it came time to demonstrate a particular swimming skill - how to use arms to stroke through the water, or feet to kick, or how to turn the head to breathe - it was easy to gather them around me so they could watch as I moved my arms, or held onto the wall and kicked, or put my face in the water and turned my head to the side and took a breath.  Most of the time, they were close enough for me to touch them and I often did, supporting their bodies while they tried each skill so they could feel what it felt like to be a swimmer, offering them the chance to know what it would feel like to glide through the water when they could put all of their learning together.

Now, many years later, I work with upper elementary teachers, supporting them as they develop their reading and writing workshops.  As a part of our work together, I recommend that teachers write their own pieces when teaching students a particular genre of writing.  I encourage them to share this writing with their students as mentor texts, as examples of the kind of writing they want students to do in the units being taught.  Reading John Hattie’s 2008 analysis of what factors maximize student achievement (Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement,  Routledge), we learn students need crystal clear examples of what we are asking them to do if they are to be successful at specific tasks.  Deliberately producing a piece of writing for them that illustrates the skills and strategies we are teaching so they can use our writing as a model to examine makes perfect sense.   

Another reason to think about writing teacher-generated mentor texts is because they clearly communicate to students that what they are being asked to write is important. So important, in fact, that the teacher – a member of the classroom writing community – is writing the same piece.  Students are perceptive and clearly understand the difference between being given an “assignment” and being included in a community that writes and confers and develops together.  When teachers write and discuss their own mentor texts, students are included in the writing process in a way that allows them to interact with the teacher as fellow writers.  They get to see – literally - what an experienced writer does as she writes in the same genre:  how she creates an engaging lead, or adds details, or uses paragraphs to organize her writing, or chooses language to make her writing more powerful, or creates a closing that sends readers away with something to think about.  What is the teacher doing in her writing that they might try, too, to lift the level of their own piece?

Teachers, too, benefit from composing mentor texts for writing units in several ways.  Most important, perhaps, is the opportunity to know what will be challenging about creating a particular kind of text.  How can a teacher truly know what components of a writing task students will find difficult if she has not attempted to write exactly what students are trying to write?  How will that teacher be able to predict what lessons might be necessary, or where students might need unusual support, if she has not written in that genre in the manner required by the unit students are exploring?  Or, as Donald Graves wrote in Writing: Teachers & Children at Work (Heinemann, 1983): “Teachers who have not wrestled with writing cannot effectively teach the writer’s craft.”

A frequent question from teachers in workshops concerns how they can be more comfortable and effective when conferring with their student writers.  One answer I offer is that when teachers write their own pieces in each unit students study, teachers are more likely to be able to talk fluently and successfully about what students are trying to do in their writing.  Why?  Because the teachers are writing the same pieces and encountering the same demands and challenges as their students.  They will know what it is like to consider choosing a thesis statement for a persuasive essay or finding the heart of the story in a personal narrative or deciding on a topic for a feature article.  They will need to make the same decisions about content, language, and format as each writer in the class is making, and so will be able to offer advice and share experiences when they confer with students.

It is not always easy to begin to write mentor texts for our students.  Most of us do not compose essays, narratives, or informational pieces on a regular basis, if at all.  It can be scary to compose these pieces following the guidelines of the units we are teaching, thinking about how our work will be received by our students.  I remember being afraid when I began teaching writing and producing mentor texts, worried my students would find out I was not a good writer, that I would make spelling or grammatical errors, and that my students might laugh at my writing.  What I found instead was that they valued my participation in the unit, that they could not wait to see what I would write, and that the bond that grew between us as writers far outweighed any thought about whether my writing was good (they thought it was) or whether it was perfect.  They used my writing over and over again in our units as a resource, as a guide to show them what a persuasive essay or personal narrative or feature article looked like, and trusted me to show them how they might use my example to help them move their own writing forward.

My guess is that I learned a lot about teaching writing many years ago when I was standing in three feet of water in a swimming pool, surrounded by ten or so eager, bouncing children who needed someone in the pool with them to teach them to swim.  I know I could not have had the same impact on them if I had been sitting on the side of the pool – can you imagine trying to teach swimming without being in the water with your students?  I think we probably know the same thing is true about teaching writing.  It isn’t always easy, but we know that the best way to teach writing is to be a writer, to understand how the writing process works, the attributes of a genre, and the probable challenges writers will face when writing a particular piece. 

It doesn’t matter if students are new to the writing process or if they have some experience as writers.  We can’t sit on the sidelines and give advice from afar. We need to jump in, demonstrate particular writing skills, and start writing.  We need to sit right next to our students and show them what writing is about.  We need to support them while they try each skill so they know what it feels like to be a writer, offering them the chance to know what it will feel like to compose with abandon and power when they put all of their learning together.