where the writers are
Making it real

At the beginning of one school year, I asked my students to have a book or magazine-one they actually wanted to read- with them daily. Not a textbook and not a magazine with fold-out anatomically correct photos, and if they didn't have a book with them, they'd be able to select one from my bookshelf.

 

Two or three days a week, for ten minutes, I planned to have students read. Just read. Initially and understandably, they were confused. Predictable questions followed: "Is there going to be a test? Will we have to write about or talk about what we're reading? What if we don't finish what we're reading? How are we getting a grade? Are you SURE there's no test?"

No test. No writing. No talking. No having to finish what you started. Yes, I'm sure.

This concept of reading simply for the sake of reading was almost foreign to them. As a teacher, I'll own being responsible for this confusion because so much of what happens in a classroom is not for the sake of pure enjoyment. It's about the grade. But that's another issue, at least for now.

Walk into my classroom on these reading days and you will hear nothing. Well, excluding the huge sigh of the air conditioner as it kicks off. This silence is absolutely glorious. Not because my students are quiet. It's because they're engaged. I'm not a teacher who believes learning takes place in silent classrooms. So, I don't promote quiet for the sake of quiet.  But on these reading days, I'm so psyched by their involvement in their books that I feel guilty having to tell them time's up. Sometimes, I extend the ten minutes to fifteen or twenty.

Unless I'm compelled to attend to some other teacher business during that time, I'm reading with them. Too many students never see an adult in their home ever read. I want them to see that I'm reading, and what I'm reading. A few months ago, I was rabidly attempting to finish the Twilight series before half my students spilled the plot to me. Some days I'm reading professional development books,Writer's Digest, or other magazines or books about writing. When the time's up, I'll ask students if they want to share anything about what they've read...positive or negative. If they don't share, that's not a problem. They know they're not expected to, so there's none of that uncomfortable squirming, direct eye contact avoidance behavior.

Before I'd started giving myself permission to read with my students, I'd already spent time writing with them. Years ago, I started this when I began teaching my Advanced Placement English classes. One day I realized I was doling out prompts to my students expecting them to face the time constraints and anxiety of having to write a lucid, well-developed, and organized essay. Without experiencing it myself, how could I pretend to understand what faced them? So, I'd sit in a student desk, and attack the prompt right along with them. If nothing else, they appreciated my willingness to humble myself and came to realize that writing can be a struggle at any age. I also think my participation in the challenge added credibility to my comments.

Then, a few years ago, when I began to seriously pursue my fiction writing, I began to share my writing with my students. Not so much to uphold what I wrote as a model, but to show them that writing can be a messy and frustrating process, one that may not result in anything worth the paper it was written on. At times, I think my scratchings reassured them that even teachers write poopy papers. What I hoped to demonstrate was that the power was in the process and the willingness to give and get feedback. And I hoped to show that them I wasn't unwilling to do what I was asking them to do.

Too many teachers of reading and writing aren't willing to read or write with their students. I'm amazed by the arrogance of some teachers who believe that their teaching certificate exempts them from having to participate in what they're asking their students to do.

How can one effectively teach writing if one's not struggling with the very process in his/her own writing? I realize that many teachers pursued a degree in English because of their passion for literature, not for writing. But the reality is,high school English teachers are expected to teach writing. When we bring ourselves to the classroom, our struggles and insecurities, I believe we're sending a message to our students that learning isn't so much about "covering" material as it is about "uncovering" it. Making the process transparent and even trusting our students in the way that we expect them to trust us.

What a gift it would be for students and their teachers to be visited by authors.

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