As I stood at a checkout counter this weekend, the young lady ringing up my purchase eyed my #WhyIWrite T-shirt.
“So, you’re a writer?” she smiled, scanning my items.
Someone asks me this every time I wear the shirt in public. The interest always surprises me.
And, in spite of blogging for two years, having an untold number of stories in various stages of completion since I was six, and continuously capturing ideas in notebooks for more things to explore through writing, I still pause when asked this question. Funny how hard it is to own I am a writer.
After a slight beat, I gave the young lady my short answer: “Yes. And I teach writing.”
Although she kept smiling, a shadow crossed her beautifully made-up face. “I struggled with writing in high school,” she said. “I speak well” —unmistakable pride glimmered in her dark eyes— “but I can’t write as well as I speak.”
There was something almost apologetic in her self-assessment. A trace of shame over this perceived shortcoming.
I hear this in people’s voices every time they tell me that they’re “not good writers.”
Some of them are teachers.
And I mourn, because, somewhere along the way, others have made them believe this.
“How often did you see the writing process modeled?” I asked the cashier, already knowing the answer. “Did you see examples of what the teachers wanted you to do, to make it concrete? Did you get feedback from the teachers during the writing of your essays, to help you improve your writing?”
She shook her head. “Oh, no. We were just told ‘Here’s the assignment, here’s when it’s due.’ ”
She completed my transaction. A long line of people waited behind me; I couldn’t ask this affable, well-spoken cashier if she’d ever enjoyed writing, or tried it for fun, just to see what she could do. I couldn’t say: You think you’re not a writer, but that is not the end of your story.
I left the store knowing that I’ll have to return for a follow-up conversation in which I will say these things and encourage her to write. Maybe I’ll even take her a journal. I have several lovely ones waiting to be used.
My checkout conversation reiterates to me, yet again, that students struggle with writing because teachers struggle with teaching it. Writing is labor-intensive. It’s time-consuming. Teacher education programs often offer very little in the way of solid writing pedagogy, and unless teachers have access to professional development that provides them with the “how” and “why”—positive writing experiences of their own—the struggle goes on. Systems, administrators, and teachers battle over a clear vision of what quality writing instruction is, what the authentic writing process is versus any program, and why effective writing instruction matters (that’s another whole post in itself). I know educators who confess to “not being good” at teaching writing. Some happen to be in positions where they are advocating for the removal of writing workshop in schools.
In truth, it all begins with So, you’re a writer?
For the answer to that question must be yes before one is equipped to be a teacher of writing.
As for me, I’d start a grassroots SAVE EDUCATION THROUGH WRITING movement if I could.
In the meantime, I content myself with helping whomever I can, whenever I can, to grow themselves as writers.
The timing of my checkout encounter happens to be uncanny; I was, in fact, preparing to co-facilitate my district’s second annual Teacher Summer Writing Institute, which starts today.
In a few hours, I’ll meet the participants, elementary through high school cross-curricular educators who are willing to give up seven hours a day for an entire week during their vacation, ultimately to benefit the students they serve. Part of our institute rationale reads:
Everyone has the capacity to write, writing can be taught, and teachers can help students become better writers.
Writing grows out of many different purposes.
Participants will be invited to be writers and engage in creative struggle.
We become experts at teaching writing by writing.
We will coach one another as we want our students to be coached on their writing journeys.
I know great things lie in store for the teachers who are coming. Not because of anything I or my co-facilitators say or do, but because of what lies within these teachers, these writers. I anticipate my own surprises— about the craft, about myself—because it always happens when I work at writing. The wellspring never runs dry. Never. Whenever writing is involved, I’ve learned to expect the unexpected. And to let it pour.
However these teachers may feel about writing, they’re already illustrating an important truth before Day One is up and running: This is not the end of the story.
It’s a beginning.
New pages await, expectantly, beckoning:
You can do it.
And so can that cashier . . . .
See Stone speaks for words of wisdom on teaching, literacy, reading, and the power of writing as shared by author Nic Stone on Day 1 of the Teacher Summer Writing Institute.