GUEST BLOG: Am I A Teacher-Writer? By Sadie Phillips

This is a guest blog by Sadie Phillips. You can read more by visiting her blog here.

If reading is the key to learning, then writing is the lock.

Or rather, writing is the medium through which we unlock potential and empower children (and adults). We still depend on writing as the largest indicator of success and progress in learning. Therefore, it should have just as much emphasis as reading in school. For example, if we are Reading for Pleasure daily, should we not also be Writing for Pleasure daily too? If we are explicitly teaching children how to read, are we explicitly modelling the writing process to them too?

“Students can go a lifetime and never see another person write, much less show them how to write. Yet, it would be unheard of for an artist not to show her students how to use oils by painting on her own canvas, or for a ceramist not to demonstrate how to throw clay on a wheel and shape the material himself. Writing is a craft.”

(Graves, A Fresh Look at Writing, 1994)

Here, Donald Graves reflects on his own life as a writer-teacher:

 

Cremin and Myhill (Writing Voices: Creating Communities of Writers, 2012) state that the roles a writing-teacher needs to adopt are:

  • an engaged and reflective reader
  • an authentic demonstrator of writing
  • a scribe for class compositions
  • a fellow writer, alongside younger learners
  • a response partner
  • an editor, co-editor and adviser
  • a publisher of their own work and their students’ work
  • a writer in their everyday lives

As part of a year-long CPD project, Raising Attainment in Writing (CLPE), I took some time to reflect on myself as a teacher-writer. This can be a useful exercise for all teachers and could involve the following:

  • Have you viewed yourself as a writer at different stages throughout your life? At which points? Do you still consider yourself a writer now?
  • Are you a reader? In what ways has reading influenced your writing?
  • What kids of writing do you engage in and which do you enjoy? (diaries, notes, social media, reports, articles etc.) It’s also worth considering writing that you don’t enjoy!
  • How important were your own teachers in your learning to writer? What did you learn from them? What did they do that inspired you?
  • Have you ever worked with professional writers? What did you learn from them?
  • What are your routines for writing? How do you feel about it throughout the different parts of the writing process?
  • How would you describe your style of teaching writing? What are your guiding principles or values? Is it your specialism or do you lack confidence? Can you think of examples where you’ve encouraged children to make progress in writing?

My personal history of writing

There have been many stages of my life where I have considered myself to be a writer. At school, I loved writing poetry and fictional stories. I was lucky enough to have many inspirational teachers throughout my years at primary (Mrs. Jackson, Mrs. Robertson-Ewart) and secondary school (Mrs. Matheison, Mr. Crump and Mrs. Ross) who inspired and engaged and indulged my passion for writing. I can still vividly remember many lessons and writing projects throughout my time at school: performing Greek scripts (with our own accompanying music), writing war-diaries on tea-stained paper, reciting Shakespeare and poetry by heart. I can recall a poetry lesson where we had to emulate the voice of a young child, I still remember the feeling of enormous pride when my teacher commented on my use of the word ‘tree-cher’ (it was supposed to be a mis-heard word by the small child, who thought they were called ‘tree-cher’ due to the fact they were as tall as a tree). The fact I can remember in such detail is astonishing. Anyone who knows me, knows that I have a terrible memory! I wish I had a copy of that poem now. Their enthusiasm as teachers was infectious.

As a teenager, I’d pour over lyrics by Eminem and Jay-Z (in the days when lyrics were printed on the sleeves of CDs), I kept a diary and I wrote notes to friends daily. I actually used to write a funny poem inside each birthday card for friends, it became a bit of a ‘thing’ and they almost looked forward to the personalised poem more than the present! I think this idea originated from my mum, who writes poems sometimes too. Most recently, she scribed a poem inside a book she gave me at Christmas. I always enjoyed reading her poems so much. It obviously inspired me to pass that joy onto others!

I went on to pursue a career in communications and completed a masters degree in International Public Relations, where I honed my academic writing style (although not my preference!). I used to hand-write letters and postcards to family members throughout my years at university and have always loved receiving post.

Just a few years after graduating, I progressed to marketing manager at Rick Stein’s where I found myself writing press releases, news articles, features, leaflets, website copy, emails and newsletters. I also wrote in my own time as a food and drink blogger during this period of my life and often reviewed cookery courses, restaurants and recipes. I was eventually shortlisted for the Carol Trewin Young Writers’ Award.

As a teacher, I now write for work (lesson plans, twitter chats, modelling to children, writing with children, writing letters, cards and notes to children, emails…) and for pleasure (such as messages and emails to long distance friends, this blog!). I am constantly writing notes in numerous notebooks and more recently using my iPhone notes or my laptop to quickly get ideas down. I even keep a notebook in my bedside table for ‘middle-of-the-night’ thoughts.

I suppose I have always considered myself to be a writer and I’ve always taken pleasure in writing.

Personal Routines for Writing

I do see writing as a process, but the elements that are most important for me personally are the pre-writing stages. I need time to read, scribble threads of ideas and notes, time to think and play and rearrange and adjust, I need time to explore vocabulary and time  to plan. If I am faced with a blank piece of paper, with little input or inspiration to write, I can become easily frustrated and lack ideas. I need something to spark my imagination or provoke thought before I can put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard).

I also love the opportunity to publish and share my writing with others, if it’s a person or group I know well (I’m much more timid in front of strangers!). First drafts are always messy! The process can vary dependent on the genre. Poetry often seems to flow out of me much easier than anything else. I love the fact that there are no rules!

Here’s a poem I wrote for my class on National Writing Day earlier this year (based on The Staffroom by James Cole). This is the published version which I wrote for inclusion in our National Writing Day Poetry book, which is still sitting in our book corner:

POEM

Teaching Writing

I definitely think my own personal experiences of writing affect the way I teach. I am always looking for exciting ways to engage the children in writing and as a result I do tend to give more time to the pre-writing part of the process. I’ve realised that perhaps I don’t place enough importance on (or give enough time to) redrafting and editing. I hope that my enthusiasm rubs off on the children in the same way that my own teachers’ enthusiasm did!

I try to always explicitly teach the writing process to children in my class and to give them authentic purpose and audiences for their writing. We have published and celebrated their writing in numerous ways, from performances, to publishing books on Amazon or handmade books in our class library, to sending letters and publishing a school magazine. I believe that if children can see the point of the writing, the end goal, they are more likely to engage in (and be excited by) writing. Publishing written work also highlights the importance of revising and editing – something we are working on!

For more details on my personal philosophies and strategies for teaching literacy, you might like to read previous blogs on publishinggetting to grips with grammarspelling in a reading rich curriculum, inspiring writing with quality textswriting for pleasure (or free writing), engaging ways to teach or build vocab, as well as ways to use working walls to inspire writing and, most recently, widening our reading repertoires.

Points for personal development

Reflecting on my writing practice and personal history has made me think about choice. I think I need to start giving children more choice about what they write and how they write it. At the moment, I use this technique for some, but not all, units of work. I can see that children enjoy writing when it is something they have chosen to write, rather than something they’ve been instructed to write. I am going to look at revising plans and units of work to incorporate more choice for the children.

As a result of this reflection, I would also love to spend more time writing with the children(although this isn’t always feasible!) as I know this shows them that I value what they are doing. I also know that they love hearing and reading what I’ve written. It also allows me to personally experience each task as a writer (so I can see how difficult it might be) and verbalise the process for the children (e.g. “I’m really struggling to think of a way to describe X, how could I generate some ideas?”). It also allows them to see that it’s ok to make mistakes and it’s ok to have a messy first draft!

Further reading which may be useful:

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Are You A ‘Teacher Writer’ Or A ‘Writer Teacher’ And Why Does It Matter?

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

  1. 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:

  1. Have the self-esteem to believe they have something to say.
  2. Can mine their lives for writing ideas.
  3. Have built or are building a love affair with writing and language.
  4. Reading and writing become interlocked in trying to make sense of the world and to communicate ideas, thoughts, reactions and memories.
  5. Bring their writing and their writing process into the classroom to share.
  6. 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.
  7. 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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**Please note that the views expressed on this blog are informed by educational research but may not represent our employer.**

Teachers As ‘Teacher-Writers’: Living The Writer’s Life

  • Atwell, N., (2015), In the middle USA: Heinemann
  • Calkins, L. (1998) The art of teaching writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  • Carruthers, A. & Scanlan, P. (1990). Report on the New Zealand Writing Project: An informal evaluation. English in Aotearoa, 11, 14-18
  • Cremin, T., (2011) Writing Voices: Creating Communities Of Writers London: Routledge
  • Cremin, T., Baker, S., (2010) Exploring teacher-writer identities in the classroom:conceptualising the struggle. English Teaching: Practice and Critique, 9(3):8-25
  • Cremin, T., Locke, T., (2017) Writer Identity & The Teaching & Leanring Of Writing London: Routledge
  • Garrett, L., & Moltzen, R., (2011) Writing because I want to, not because I have to: Young gifted writers’ perspectives on the factors that “matter” in developing expertise In English Teaching: Practice and Critique Vol.10(1) p.165-180
  • Graves, D., (2003), 20th Ed, Writing: Teachers & Children At Work USA: Heinemann
  • Goouch, K., Cremin, T., Lambirth, A., (2009) Writing Is Primary: Final research report.London: Esmee Fairbairn Foundation
  • Loane, G., (2017) Developing Young Writers In The Classroom London: Routledge
  • Locke, T., (2015) Developing Writing Teachers London: Routledge
  • Peel, R., (2000) Beliefs about ‘English’ in England In Questions of English, Ethics, Aesthetics, Rhetoric & the Formation o the Subject in England, Australia and the United States 116-88 London: Routledge
  • Smith, F., (1982) Writing And The Writer HEB: New York
  • Smith, F., (1988) Joining the literacy club Heinemann: Oxford
  • Yeo (2007) New literacies, alternative texts: Teachers conceptions of composition and literacy  In English Teaching: Practice and critique, 6(1):113-31