Building A Community Of Writer-Teachers
As some of you may know, we have recently set up a @WritingRocks_17 twitter account. One of its aims is to build of a community of writer-teachers.
- In our recent poll, only 37% of our readers considered themselves ‘writer teachers’.
- Over 50% stated they were teachers that happen to teach writing.
The truth is though that actually all teachers are writers – we write often! Some might argue we write too often – about things that don’t really matter – but that’s another blogpost! Perhaps then, as Teresa Cremin (2017) points out, we need to move away from writing being seen as some kind of ‘quasi-romantic’ practice to actually one that many of us can and do excel at!
As studies indicate (Peel, 2000, Yeo, 2007) and Teresa’s article here shows, many teachers who are passionate about the teaching of English come to it through a passion for reading – not writing. This has a considerable impact on classroom practice with reading often profiled over writing.
Our @WritingRocks_17 community is looking to help raise writing up to the same level as reading. Incidentally, @ReadingRocks_17 does a great job of raising the profile of the reading-for-pleasure pedagogy.
Another poll we undertook on Twitter showed that teachers overwhelmingly wanted to become a more effective ‘writer-teachers’ and so this is where we will begin.
Let’s talk about the difference between a ‘writer-teacher’ and a ‘teacher-writer’ because the difference is a profound one.
What Is A ‘Writer-Teacher’?
As Frank Smith (1988) puts it, ‘Teachers who are not themselves members of the club cannot admit children to it’.
Writer-teachers write for and with the children in their class as well as for themselves. They do this for the children’s and for their own benefit. Research has shown, being a writer-teacher is a seriously powerful teaching tool. If you, and we, can become a community of writer-teachers, our identities and understanding of the writing process will change for our young writers benefit.
Why So Important?
‘The main requirements are easily stated. We, as teachers, must provide an environment in which a child will want to write and in which a child can learn about writing. The environment in which a child will want to write is an environment of demonstrations, not just of ‘this is the way we do things’ but also ‘these are things that can be done.’ (Frank Smith, 1988, p.201)
Transformative effect occur when teachers, through sustained engagement in acts of writing and reflection in communities of practice, assume identities as writers and enact this identity with their students… This is because such teacher have newfound understanding of what pedagogical practices around writing actually work (Locke, 2015, preface)
The most effective way of improving children’s writing outcomes is for them to have teachers who are able to teach about the writing process. Teachers who can give good, honest general advice about how to approach the different aspects of the writing process produce the best writers. Carruthers & Scanlan (1990) report that as teachers become writers their students’ writing improves. Goouch et al (2009) and Cremin & Baker (2010) have also shown the young writers who have writer-teachers as their teachers are able to settle more quickly, remain focused for longer and are as similarly engaged in writing as their teacher. Research has also shown children who have writing-teachers are more motivate to write and heightened levels of intrinsic motivation have been found to characterise exceptional achievers in writing (Garrett & Moltzen, 2011).
It would be unheard of for a piano teacher, a ceramicist, or an artist working with water colours to teach someone their craft without practising it themselves. – Donald Graves
What Is A ‘Teacher-Writer’?
According to our recent poll, over 50% of teachers said they were ‘teacher-writers’. Teachers who happen to teach writing. When these teachers do write, it is often for school-work reasons (often the producing of examplar texts for work). These texts are often products for the system as they will inevitably include certain grammatical and linguistic features that the writer may not have wanted to include – had they been writing the piece for themselves – for pleasure.
(Cremin & Baker, 2010, p.20)
Writer-teachers do this too of course. They will write products for school-work but they also engage in the writing process just for themselves. For inter and intrapersonal reasons. These teachers are the ones who are able to better understand what their pupils are going through when they negotiate the difficult (but hugely rewarding) task that is writing. They can share this ‘writers-life’ advice with their children quickly and regularly. We know that it is this type of teaching of writing that is the most effective in terms of improving children’s writing outcomes too – see here.
Watch this video to meet the master ‘writer-teacher’ Donald Graves talking about his life as a writer-teacher:
What Does A Writer-Teacher Look Like?
To be an authentic model of the ‘writers-life’, teachers need to do much more than model the act of composition. Just as it is with the reading-for-pleasure pedagogy, you need to do much more than just read books yourself to show children how to become life-long readers. Teresa Cremin, in her book Writing Voice: Creating Communities Of Writers, states that writer-teachers are teachers who do the following things:
- Authentically demonstrate their writing process and their writing products with their class and be open to sharing their strategies,
- Are engaged readers; always looking to magpie: words, lines, sentences, characters, plots, settings, poetic moments from their reading for their own writing.
- Are engaged in the world – looking for things to: describe, be critical of, explain, or to debate.
- Work on class compositions,
- Give genuine writing advice through Pupil-Conferencing whilst children write,
- Write alongside the children in the class when they can,
- Publish their own and children’s work into the class-library,
- Write in their everyday lives. They try to live the ‘writer-life’,
- They have their very own Writing Process which they can discuss and share with their pupils.
To live the writer-life, these teachers will often have writing notebooks at school and at home. In them they will scribble down potential writing moments. Over time, they will write down vocabulary or lines from books to use later. They will write inspired by poems, they will write memoirs about their childhood to share with their class – to entertain them or to make them reflect.
What Does My ‘Writer-Teacher’ Process Look Like?
I now have a fairly established writer-life. I tend to generate ideas when I’m out and about. I’ll notice something or have something happen to me that I know will be a good moment to expand on in a written piece. I’ve taught the children that these are what are called ‘pebble moments’.
Pebble moments are when you write about a single thing really well as opposed to writing about a ‘whole beach of ideas’. It’s really about writing specifically rather than generally about a topic. So instead of writing about swimming – write about the swim you took on Brighton beach on Christmas Day. It’s about having that mentality and watching out for little moments that people might relate to and connect with.
I tend to collect these ‘pebble moments’ on my phone. They then get written in the back of my writing journal which is on my writers desk when I get home. I do take my writing-journal into school from time to time to share and to write with the children. I also tend to plan and box-up my writing by hand in my journal. However, I often then transfer to the computer when I want to draft a piece. I’ll then print it out and stick it in my writing journal. Once in my journal, I might still play round with it. If it is any good, I’ll read it to the children or make it an exemplar text for one of our Genre topics.
I’m not a very confident writer and as a result I will often use the tools I’ve created for the children in my class! I don’t know if it is embarrassing to say but I use my own Genre-Booklets that I’ve created for the children and will stick to them quite closely. I’ll use the Boxing Up sheet too to plan my writing. I will then try out some of the Revision Tips the children use to improve their writing. Finally, I’ll proof read it using the Editing Checklist I’ve created for the children in my class. I guess I do this because I find it all a good support but I also get the added benefit of putting the materials ‘under stress’ to see if they work well – and if I can an improvement can be made to the booklets, I’ll make it.
The Writing Processes The Children In My Class Have Identified
- The Vomitters
The most popular writing process. These children like to get their ideas down on paper and spend most of their time revising it and getting it ‘reader ready’ through proof reading and publishing.
2. The Paragraph Pilers
The second most popular process. These children like to vomit a paragraph, clean it up by revising it and editing it before they move on to the next part in their writing.
3. Sentence Stackers
The least popular process. These are children who vomit a sentence and attend to the transcription immediately afterwards.
Interestingly, there are also The Planners and The Discoverers. These are children who either plan their writing to the absolute detail before going on to draft or else I have The Discoverers who resist planning as much as possible and like to see where their writing will take them (often with varying success).
The Seven Things Writer-Teachers Do:
- Have the self-esteem to believe they have something to say.
- Can mine their lives for writing ideas.
- Have built or are building a love affair with writing and language.
- Reading and writing become interlocked in trying to make sense of the world and to communicate ideas, thoughts, reactions and memories.
- Bring their writing and their writing process into the classroom to share.
- Become more closely observant of: life’s events, things that happened to them, things that are said and their environment. They are aware, sensitive and responsive – always looking for potential writing ideas and noting them down.
- Explore how authors put their work together and ‘magpie’ from them for their own writing.
If you’d like to read more about how the children approach The Writing Process independently in my class, you can go here.
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**By Phil Ferguson**
Teachers As ‘Teacher-Writers’: Living The Writer’s Life