Friday, January 15, 2010

A Teacher's Lessons from Writing, Part 1

I feel like a kid on Christmas Eve. My first book is about to be published, but the printing/binding process is taking longer than I’d like. (Don’t worry, this isn’t really about the book.) This period between final revisions and publication has given me time to reflect on the journey, and, as usual, my thoughts have been exploring connections to teaching. Surprisingly, many principles seem relevant, such as…

Audience matters. Yes, I know this seems obvious, but it wasn’t at first. I started writing shortly after my last stint in graduate school, and I could out APA style the APA itself. I adhered to the style boundaries with such fealty that I was surprised not to be appointed to the committee determining proper citation forms for tweets and wall postings.

So, I anticipated great responses when I distributed early copies of the initial chapters to colleagues. With as much kindness as one can express such sentiment, they basically suggested that unless I intended to submit the work to the Journal of Sky-High Instructional Theory, I had work to do. Constantly reading “the teacher,” who never became a real person with a name, and frequently being interrupted by date and page number citations made reading my early writing laborious.

When it became clear that I was hunting in the wrong forest, I changed from writing to reading. I became a voracious gatherer of books about writing. I’ll save the extensive influence of this self-education for a later post. For now, I’ll just point out that I was of two minds in my writing. I wanted to write for teachers, my colleagues. Publishers would suggest I wanted to write for a “general audience.” However, my actual writing targeted university professors—the individuals who had been my audience and had held my fate in their hands for the past several years. How could I change direction? Several books offered suggestions that are nicely summarized in this passage from Mark Tredinnick:

Good writing is not mannered and stilted—it’s not inflected with overanxious politeness, nor false with bonhomie, nor false with confidence, nor anything faux or excessive…Good writing is calm and cool, and it remembers its manners. Everyone likes to be treated with a relaxed mix of dignity, grace, and respect by someone who knows what he’s talking about but isn’t trying to show it off. That’s the kind of attitude writers want toward their readers.1
After I somewhat ironically checked a dictionary for bonhomie (cheerful friendliness), I realized I needed to find my voice—a way of writing that sounded like me in real-life, not me as a grad student.

This prompted me to reflect on the writing I required of my students. Did I ever allow them to explore and find their voices? Was I offering them only an audience of one—me, their teacher—that would so stilt their writing that it would be of no interest to a “general audience”? If so, was I truly preparing them to influence their world?

Over the last few years, I’ve gotten to lead a course called “Writer’s Stylus” for teachers. The five days of professional development provide a metamorphic experience. Teachers from all disciplines start the week writing like students—that is, they write with “overanxious politeness” and false “bonhomie.” As the week progresses, they begin to find their voices and write with such dignity and grace that they deserve to be read, many for the first time in their lives. If you write regularly, this may not seem that transformational, but trust me, it literally changes lives. While I get excited about what these teachers will do instructionally, I grow even more excited by their personal growth. Finding your voice can truly change an individual’s outlook, confidence, and, yes, life.

So what am I doing with my students? Sure, you can argue that they need to learn to write for the academic world, and I’ll agree. But if that’s all I emphasize, have I equipped them to write for the larger world? Have I enabled them to make history more than a dry recounting of facts? Have I encouraged them to take readers to a volcanic eruption and care about the people affected by it? Have I empowered them to present the structure of mathematics as a dynamic window on the world? Have I helped them write literature and not just write about it?

Audience matters, but it is the writer who must change, must grow, must discover how to communicate as himself. Authenticity is what draws an audience.

Did I master this aspect? I’d never claim that I did. I have hope, but more than that, I have a renewed focus in my teaching: help learners find their voices and equip them to “speak” with “calm and cool,” with “dignity, grace, and respect,” not to show-off, but to confidently impact their world.

1. Tredinnick, M., Writing Well: The Essential Guide (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2008), 184.

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