being a teacher

On Honoring Student Writing Identity

I have been writing. Every Saturday morning, in the quiet before the house comes alive, I sit with a cup of tea, my computer and I write the words that I have been carrying about the work we do in room 203. Sometimes my fingers fly, other times they still as I reread each sentence, not quite sure where I am going but knowing that there is something there.

This isn’t the first time, I have written for a larger purpose. Somehow in my history as an educator, four books have been published under my name, and yet this time, it feels really vulnerable. This time, I am trying to stay in my lane, not overstep, but also write what I know best; the practice of teaching these kids that are put in my care every day. Imposter syndrome is once again a live and well, as well as the notion that perhaps my words are not needed in anyway. After all, does reading identity and the work we do to help every reader see themselves really matter in a world fraught with injustice? So I step away, mired in my own doubts, and don’t return until the following Saturday when I try again.

It makes me think of just how our students feel when we ask them to write. When we ask them to sit down in artificial environments and tell their story. How we cannot dismiss the emotions that are inevitably tied in with the task of writing. Not just all of the skills, but how it makes them feel to pour their words onto a page, not knowing who will receive them, who will carry them? Not knowing how these words will become a part of their labels? Their identity.

I don’t think I have paid enough attention to the emotions of writing for many years as a teacher. It has been a rediscovery, only reentering my reflections in the past few years, to recognize that much like I carry heavy doubts within my own skills, despite being a published author, so do the children I teach. That when they claim they hate writing, it is often more of a statement of the vulnerability they feel and how unsettling it is, rather than the act of writing itself.

So how do we take care of the emotions that are tied with the work that we do? How do we acknowledge, make space, and allow the focus to be on the identity of the writer and not just the writing itself? A few things come to mind.

We center our writing in humanity. Meaning that with every word we pass on to our writers when they hand us their work, we take care in our handling of the words. We pause, reflect, and ask; what would you like me to do rather than jump in with our edits, our no nonsense grammatical and editorial ways and sit for a moment to discuss what they hope to accomplish with the time we have together. Their words lead our work. And if they do not have the words to lead then we teach them.

We give them time to think. For so long, I asked students to jump right in, just start writing, but now we sit in silence. Now we ponder, now we begin with slow starts, and sometimes begin many times, playing around with the words that we want to see through.

We write authentically in front of them. Not aiming for perfection because our writers are already surrounded by perfection through the books we have in our classrooms, but instead show the struggle we also have with putting ideas on the table and forming stories to fall out of our hands. Too often, I rehearsed what I would write because otherwise my modeling would take too long, but it is this length of time that students need to see in order to understand that nothing is wrong with them when they don’t know what to write. Or we write something that is not good, that stinks of repetitive notions and clicheed ideas and we share it and proclaim that not all writing will be great and that’s okay. And we live it.

We fix our own imperfect writing, not using student models as a way to show how to make something better. I know I have asked kids in the past to let us edit their piece live and while the kids willingly gave up their writing, I now think of the weight of the words we wrapped it up in and how that inevitably lead to some kids once again confirming that their writing would only ever be good enough for the “before” version and never the “after.” So write you own imperfect models and use those.

We give them the power to answer who will carry their words? Too often we tell students to share because we assume they want to celebrate and we can only do that publicly and yet we forget that sometimes the only audience needed is ourselves. That sometimes kids take creative risks or their emotions are splayed out on the page and that they need to decide who sees it. That gives power.

We check our own social identities and honor the writing that kids do. Too often, I have erased the child themselves from their writing in my quest for “proper” grammar or spelling without recognizing the voice that a child wrote in. I break rules all the time in my own writing yet never offer up the same privilege to my students. I forget so easily that writing is about uncovering how you want to speak t o the world, so why not practice that in school, rather than always chase after what the dominant culture has decided is proper and real and the only way? Where is the room for experimentation, for diving in to linguistic pathways that model the writers that shake us to the core?

I don’t know if what I am writing will ever be published. At this point, I am at ease with my unsettled state. I write for me, to get the words out of my head, much like I do in this space. I write because if the words are not released then they freeze me up, they distract, they compound. But I am not ready to share them, not yet, and sometimes neither are our students. And that’s ok.

If you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page. 

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