In 1949, when I was twenty-one years old, I took a creative writing course at the New School in Manhattan, taught by Professor Don M. Wolfe. He had been my freshman English teacher at New York University, where I graduated in 1947, just two months shy of my twentieth birthday.
Dr. Wolfe assigned compositions and encouraged us to stretch the language to create imaginative imagery and use muscular words to tell our stories and create our plots. He was extremely diligent in his reading of our material. When I would receive one of my compositions back, he wrote his criticisms in red ink scrawls and you felt dead certain that he had read every word. It was through those red scrawls that I interpreted his message.
You can write, son. Keep at it.
Many students can cite similar experiences: the mentor, the inspiration, the great teacher who took the student under her or his wing and made the crucial difference, who pointed the way to a fulfilling and prosperous career.
In that fateful freshman year, largely due to Dr. Wolfe’s inspiration (of which he was surely unaware), I decided to be a writer of fiction. I changed my major to English Literature, gloried in the study of the extraordinary western canon of authors, and have since then pursued a lifetime of obsessive composition of novels, short stories, essays, and poems. I’ve been through every imaginable phase of rejection, insult, deprecation, praise, acceptance, and a moment or two of lionization.
Can writing be a civic action?
Our answer is an emphatic, “Yes!”
In today’s digital, interconnected world, youth participate in public debates and dialogue through writing. Writing in all its forms — text, memes, infographics, video, and the like — provides a vehicle for making arguments about issues that matter to them and their communities.
To develop the Civically Engaged Writing Analysis Continuum (CEWAC), a rubric for assessing civic writing, we analyzed high school writing crafted for public audiences. Examples include:
- Tenth graders in Columbus, Montana published letters about local issues in the Stillwater County newspaper. Some letters spurred public action — a bond measure to fund an emergency services district and school district training for teachers on suicide prevention.
This writing aims to serve civic purposes:
- Raise Awareness
- Engage Community Debates
- Propose Solutions to Problems
- Mobilize for Dialogue and Action
- Articulate Writers’ Concerns, Hopes, and Dreams
- Establish Public Voices
When did you first realize that you were called to be an educator?
As a child, I can recall teaching “classes” full of stuffed animals, dolls, a few live puppies, and even a captive audience of neighborhood children. But it wasn’t until high school that I really knew I wanted to be a teacher. It was an ordinary day during my sophomore year in high school, in the middle of a world history lecture, that I remember thinking to myself — Yes, I want to be a high school history teacher.
I was watching my history teacher, Mr. Sterling, at the time, and I could sense his ease with the content, his passion, and his excitement. When he wasn’t captivating me with his ponderings on the state of Abu Dhabi, he was likely teasing me after catching me waving out the door to my boyfriend for the 100th time that semester, or encouraging me to keep going after I missed that one point I needed to meet the goal I’d set for myself in the class.
I knew he was doing exactly what he was called to do in this world — and I knew I wanted to do that, too.
I loved teaching. And that’s why I know that making the decision to leave the classroom is one of the most difficult decisions an educator will ever make.
Yet, for more than a decade, we’ve been having an ongoing conversation about teacher shortages and the difficulties we now face recruiting and retaining teachers. Notably, the data suggests that retention is no longer an issue that only impacts teachers in their first five years, but that teachers are leaving their classrooms in increasing numbers throughout the trajectory of their careers. This is a problem we must address, and we believe that you can help!
Editor’s Note: Hear more about this program from Executive Director Basma Rayess in our #anewkindofPD podcast episode found on iTunes and Stitcher.
Michael had suffered for years as the result of his mother’s alcoholism. A teacher encouraged Michael to participate in a program where students could write about their experiences with violence. Michael wrote a powerful poem describing the disappointment, anger, and fear he felt with the situation, but he had no intention of having his mother read it. However, he needed a parental signature so he showed it to his mother with great trepidation. When she read it, she was silent, but something tremendous happened. The poem helped his mother make a commitment to get sober and she has been so ever since.
I came to writing books for kids through a very peculiar path. My journey began when my son discovered Minecraft.
According to Common Sense Media, “Minecraft is an open-ended, exploration- and creation-focused environment. Players can create items and buildings from scratch using materials they harvest from the world around them.” My son was very eager to be a part of this new phenomenon. In fact, if you asked him, he’d tell you he had to have it or he was going to die!
My wife and I put up a good fight, but our son was relentless. We ultimately caved and bought him the game. We were surprised and quite pleased with what he did with this new digital power. He built incredible structures, created cities and castles of glass, and floating giants. We’d never seen him so creative or engaged. It was fantastic.
It’s not (just) the sleeping in, the family getaways, and the long, unhurried meals with friends that make me love summer. It’s that I get the time to think.
Folks who work outside classrooms underestimate the immediacy and urgency of teaching. The daily press to prepare and adjust lessons, the ongoing grind of grading and giving feedback. The weeds are tall and thick when one is in the midst of the school year.
Then comes summer. I can step back and rethink my practice. I can consider, with sufficient bandwidth, what I really want students to get out of the next 180 days, during which I get to support and lead them.
As a sixth grade reading teacher, I’m always trying to think of ways to keep my students motivated. As a veteran teacher, I’m always trying to think of ways to stay current in my practice. This year, as a Teaching Channel Laureate, I decided that I’d experiment with blogging myself, then give my students the opportunity to become bloggers.
Earlier this year, I worked with my students to ask questions using Blooms Taxonomy in order to have deep discussions about text. My next goal was to have my students get those deep discussions into written form, without feeling as though they had to write a “paper.” Blogging seemed to be one possibility. Blogs represented a venue for my students’ writing, a way to solicit responses, and a move into a modern form of communication.
First, though, I had to learn more about blogging. Once I did, I brought my new-found knowledge into the classroom.
Recently, I asked one of my students if I could use his reading notebook so that another student could copy some missing notes. The student with the reading notebook writes in cursive. I didn’t think this was an issue because I knew his notes were very neatly written and easily copied.
Not so. Why? Because the student who needed the notes could not read cursive. Oh my, I thought. When did this shift happen?
On October 20th, as part of the National Day on Writing, educators and students across the country will share their motivations for, and beliefs about, writing through the #whyiwrite hashtag. Teaching Channel is partnering with The National Writing Project, The National Council of Teachers of English, and The New York Times Learning Network to promote this campaign. Please add your voice!
“You either walk inside your story and own it or you stand outside your story and hustle for your worthiness” –Brene Brown
“Good writing is clear thinking made visible.” –Bill Wheeler
In early July of 2008, I meandered through the maze of a college campus then foreign to me. Eventually, I arrived to a typically institutional classroom cluttered with blocky furniture, stain-camouflaging carpet, and nervous strangers. Over the next month that space would become a life-giving, community-building, trusted hub for personal and professional growth.
Participating in the Maryland Writing Project Invitational Summer Institute made me a writer. And it made me understand the importance of not leading that noun, “writer,” with an adjective. It didn’t make me a “better” writer or a “good” writer. It made me see the value of writing for the act itself, for ourselves, apart from judgment or qualification. It also, almost paradoxically, helped me see the value of writing as a gift for others -— to build community, to bring understanding, to provide voice for others.
Editor’s Note: Teaching Channel has partnered with Student Achievement Partners on a blog series about digital literacy tools and their effective use by educators.
The Common Core English Language Arts Standards for Writing focus on building college and career readiness by having students demonstrate the ability to write in a variety of formats. As educators, we need to facilitate authentic experiences for students to practice and take risks during the writing process.
With that in mind, we’re going to discuss several valuable digital tools to help teachers create a more engaging and dynamic writing classroom for students to meet the rigorous demands of the Common Core.