Sunday, June 21, 2009

Growing Personally and Professionally Produces Meaningful Results

A few times every year, I get to lead a professional development event known as “Writer’s Stylus.” Each time, including just last week, it proves to be an exciting experience. We begin the week thinking we already teach writing. We end the week as writers, producing an essay that has undergone multiple waves of revision. We end the week as writing teachers with a vision for developing young writers, not just students with good writing skills. We end the week as different individuals and professionals, and as a different community than when we started.

The week of training illustrates three principles that transfer to any area: personal growth aids professional growth, professional growth often requires re-evaluating long-held beliefs and practices, and whe
n combined, personal and professional growth produce meaningful results.

Personal growth aids professional growth.

“At the beginning of the week, I would never have worded this sentence like this,” the teacher explained. “But by learning how to revise my own writing, I can see the difference structuring it this way and using the stronger verb, ambushed, makes.”

“I needed someone to tell me to make it personal—that it was okay to write in my own voice,” explained another teacher. “That turned what was a very direct and didactic essay into something that makes its points through simply relating my experience.”

For all of us, the first noticeable growth was personal. We learned how to revise our own writing. We examined texts crafted by master writers. We noticed things in good writing that we’d never seen before, and we implemented those ideas into our own drafts. We grew as writers.

Our ideas, first either overwhelming or overly sketchy, developed into clear and clever expressions of ourselves. As a group, we got to know each other through rough drafts, coaching sessions, and moving final versions of our essays. The process of writing created a community of writers.

But we also grew as teachers. Because we knew what characterized and went in to crafting good writing, we recognized the weaknesses of our instructional approaches. We began to identify skills we needed to teach our students, but teaching in new and more effective ways means letting go of less effective habits.

Professional growth often requires re-evaluating long-held beliefs and practices.

Our growth as writers changed how we examined our instruction. In looking through writers’ eyes, we recognized much of what we call writing instruction fails to teach writing at all. We have students do too much drafting and not nearly enough revising. We spend too much time having students mark up pre-printed sentences and not nearly enough time crafting original ones. And we get hung up on students forming diagrams for other people’s sentences to the point that we value a correct diagram over a well-constructed original sentence.

Our old ways of thinking argued with us. What would our teaching friends who love diagramming say if they knew we were not going to overemphasize it? If we spent more time in writing and revising, what would happen to the dozens of practice activities and worksheets our textbooks provided? Would coaching young writers as individuals mean that our classes would cover fewer uses of quotation marks than we had in years past?

We asked these questions, and often we ended up laughing at ourselves. Wait, we kept reminding each other, we’re teaching writing. To learn to write, students must write. They must revise. They most journey through the full process. No one ever expressed themselves clearly and in ways that deserve attention by diagramming or underlining preprinted sentences.

Re-evaluation told us the truth. Yet, even with our new eyes, the results astonished us.

Personal and professional growth produce meaningful results.

“I felt like I was trying to hug an elephant.” We worked all week on the essays, and what started as “hugging an elephant” ended up a piece of writing that would rival anything Erma Bombeck ever wrote. “I called my essay, ‘Lettuce. Rejoice!’” she explained. Then she read, “I relished walking the rows of my neighbor’s garden…”

Look at that. Just look at the verb choice in that first sentence! Relished! Would any other verb have brought gardening and vegetables to mind nearly as well?

Several volunteers shared their revised essays, and the quality of each one surprised and delighted us. From essays on adopting and raising children to those detailing personal mission experiences, the results were meaningful—valued, important, significant—both to the writer as an individual and to us, the community, as writers.

Growth is a beautiful and productive process. We need to seek it for ourselves, both personally and professionally, and we need to let it influence our educational practices. When we do, the results may allow us to stand back an say, “Lettuce. Rejoice!”

1 comment:

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