Wednesday, June 26, 2013

ELA Teachers: Understanding Ourselves as Writers

" I launch the workshop by exploring my spheres of interest as a writer and reader, out loud in mini lessons, then inviting students to identify and lay claim to their own interests, concerns, and areas of expertise. I call these our territories. When I present my territories as a writer and reader to my students I demonstrate, as explicitly as I can, all the ways that writing and reading matter in the life of their English teacher." -- Nancie Atwell.

I have never read a book on reading and writing that has captivated me more than In The Middle. Atwell truly gets to the heart of the instruction. Today I learned how she sets up and approaches her reading and writing workshops. Atwell believes that to teach authentically an ELA must be a reader and writer themselves. It must ooze from them so to speak. She exclaims her passion for reading and writing everyday, but it is not enough just to say your passionate, we must be examples from our own lives. She demonstrates this through sharing her reading and writing territories for her students during the first days of school. She openly shares what she loves to read and write about. To be wide open to our students is not always easy. It can leave us vulnerable. However, I do agree with Atwell that by sharing our vulnerabilities, our lives, our passions, our heartbreaks help our own students develop their own voices in writing, and help them discover who they are through their reading choices.

Atwell offers her personal list of topics, genres, and audiences that represent her self portrait as a writer. For my own purposes I will reflect on my own story on how I began my journey as a writer and reader.

I really did not begin writing until college. I always enjoyed writing, but most of my high school literature and writing teachers were fairly dull. I remember one teacher in particular who had a serious obsession with Wonder Woman. He had several posters of her hanging in his room, and he had that type of dry inexpressive voice that you might of heard in the classic movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Anyway, I found him a bit strange. However, I did have a fantastic experience from one high school teacher, who helped me to find my voice--literally. Somehow, by accident or God's will I was placed in a debate class in the 9th grade. Painfully shy, I could not believe I was in a debate class. I was mortified! From the start I knew that I would be challenged in this class. I had to organize my arguments, speak clearly with precession, and be able to rebuttal against my classmates! This was way out of my comfort zone, but my teacher pulled out my voice. She strengthened my confidence. I was happy to make a B out of that class, but feeling confident I wanted more. So, the next semester I signed up for a speech class. Writing and performing a public speech resembles a five paragraph essay. I got in the habit of reading texts, writing responses, and speaking them for an audience. I began excelling, and I loved it.

In college I continued. My first semester I signed up for Public Speaking 101. It was the only "A" I made that first semester. I excelled in it so I decided to major in Speech Communications. I loved all types of language in college and pursued a minor in Spanish. I liked the challenge. It was interesting having to analyze texts; novels written in a different language, write papers and present my findings to the class. Then, as a senior, I worked for a public relations firm. I used my English writing skills to write press releases to promote local restaurants in magazines and newspapers. I used that skill for several jobs: paid and volunteer. As a young mother I wrote a column for the Douglas County News & Views, a local magazine, about being a mom-- the trials and the victories. I wrote all of the press releases for my husband's restaurant business. I've written devotionals for my church. One of my favorites to look back on is a time when I interviewed three elderly citizens of Palmetto, Georgia. I wrote their life stories and put them together in a book. The interviewees have all passed on now, but I'm glad they opened their lives to me, and I was able to write their stories. I continue to write today through the use of this blog. I also just wrote a short piece on my grandfather's life. I think people interest me the most. I like to write their stories.

Although Atwell is a writer, and I am a writer I believe that we would both argue that there is nothing special or magical in what we do. Writing is an art, and practice goes a long way. Writers must write and readers must read. I believe the trick is that ELA teachers must know who they are as readers and writers and be able to share that with their students. It is about building relationships and trust.

The following are topics that I like to write about:

  • My students
  • My family
  • My childhood
  • My children
  • My Christian faith
  • devotionals
  • Lives of others: memoirs
  • teaching
  • instruction
  • joys of teaching
  • struggles of teaching
  • gratitude journals
  • what makes me happy
  • motherhood
  • parenting
  • How I teach and why I teach
  • Literature
  • Personal heartbreaks
  • Personal joys
  • Housekeeping
  • Books for adolescents
  • Writing and reading
  • College years
  • Health
  • Success
  • Memoirs
  • Book reviews
  • Short stories
  • Poetry
  • Essays
  • Press Releases
  • Letters
  • Articles
  • Thank you notes
  • Speeches
  • Reactions to writings by my students
  • Grant writing
  • Lists
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Lesson Plans
  • Blog postings
  • Myself
  • My family
  • Other teachers
  • Administrators
  • Students
  • Other Educators
  • General Public
  • Moms
  • congregation
Atwell states that this type of information should be shared with your students. They can journal "my territories" and begin thinking about who they are as writers.

I love this exercise. Middle grades students want to delve into who they are as individuals. This is a great way to begin. There is much more in the book than I can outline in this post, but I believe the main point Atwell wants to get across is that it isn't all about the curriculum. For writers to help others to become writers, we must share our stories, our processes, and our thinking. We must take the mystery away.

Atwell's exercise also makes me think of my earlier blog post on Patricia Polacco and Avi, who both struggled with learning disabilities, but went on to be award winning writers. This is the type of knowledge that our students need to be armed with to become great writers. They need to understand that everyone struggles. It is all about practice, patience, and perseverance. The other post can be found at

I urge other writing teachers to take the time to think about how they became writers, why the write, and who they write for: the answers might be surprising.

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