In the first post in this series I explored a few of the reasons teacher might want to write, including the personal and professional benefits of writing. In this post, I’ll go into more detail about four kinds of writing teachers might want to engage in, ranging from modelling in the classroom through to publishing fiction and nonfiction.
Writing is a great creative outlet, but it also helps to sharpen your ideas around concepts and content. It can go a long way to improving feelings of self-efficacy and proficiency even in areas you may usually find out of your comfort zone. Over my years teaching – despite English being my main method – I’ve taught, and written about, digital technologies, STEAM, humanities, and entrepreneurial education. Writing for or about a subject forces you to identify gaps in your knowledge and research what’s missing, whether it’s your main method or not.
Writing is essential to communication, and teaching is essentially all about communication. Whether it’s the ability to clearly articulate an idea to a student, or crafting a carefully worded email to a parent, teachers rely on written communication skills as pat of the daily job. But there are ways to extend these natural skills beyond the ordinary.
Writing in the classroom
The most obvious place to start honing your skills – and one of the most beneficial – is in the classroom. As an English teacher there are obviously times when it’s useful for me to be able to model writing in various forms for students, from demonstrating how to construct a sentence through to taking a class through an entire essay or short story. Producing the writing yourself also gives you the ultimate quality control – I’m sure many teachers have faced a situation where they’re going through something written by another author, only to find that the meaning is obscured, the content isn’t entirely in the right context, or the quality is low.
Think about the kinds of writing your students might need to read or produce themselves. What are the specific forms of text studied in your curriculum area. One of the key principles of disciplinary literacy is the understanding that different subjects require different ways of thinking and communicating. Students need guidance in writing reports, or understanding how case studies are constructed, or in the difference between a source analysis and an argumentative essay.
Writing in the classroom also helps forge stronger relationships with your students. They need to see that writing is a messy and imperfect process. If the only text they ever see comes from a textbook – edited and proofread dozens of times before publication – then they will have a skewed version of reality, and an understandable reluctance to make mistakes. Show them your working out – go through the whole process of writing from planning through to publication, and go through the process with them, not behind closed doors.
Writing for professional practice
Cast your mind back to your uni days. Chances are, you did a significant amount of research and writing. Some of that inevitably goes out of the window under the day to day pressures of teaching, but keeping on top of professional practice can actually be made easier by committing to writing. To write, you have to read. If you commit to writing about your professional practice – for example for an association journal, a publication like Teacher magazine, a community of practice, or even an internal newsletter – you will have to carve out some time to stay on top of other research and ideas.
It’s a way of holding yourself accountable to whatever area you choose to write about. For example, in preparation for the Insight Publications Year 11 text book, and my own posts on this blog about the VCE English and EAL Study Design, I had to spend a long time neck deep in the new SD. I emailed back and forth with the people at the VCAA, my co-authors, and the publisher. I quizzed other teachers about what they wanted to read about, and made sure that I answered as many FAQs as possible. It’s hard to feel comfortable writing about something unless you know what you’re talking about.
Pick an area you’re passionate about, and engage your inner student. If your subject area is what motivates you, then try to find a particular niche to focus on. For example, I’ve spent a lot of time writing about close reading, which lead eventually to Practical Reading Strategies. If you’re a Humanities teacher, identify something specific, maybe in the area you originally studied. An Arts teacher might want to write about something specific like how to engage teenagers in performing arts. Whatever your niche, treat the process like you’re back at uni and remember that at least this time around, no one is giving you a grade.
Writing for fun
Don’t lose sight of the fact that writing should also be fun. If you’re not a writer, then maybe that sounds horrifying. But if you’ve got even the slightest inclination towards becoming a writer, then you have to lean in. in the previous post I talked about how writing for me is meditative. It’s also got a certain compelling energy behind it. Sometimes – like right now, at 8:26pm on a Thursday night – I find I can write an entire post in one hit without really pausing (except to put the kids in bed for the nineteenth time). At other times, it’s a bit more of a grind. But when it stops being fun – when I feel like I’m just writing to meet deadlines, or to edit something I thought was close to done – it becomes a problem.
Keeping a journal is an easy way to keep writing low stakes and fun – the only audience you have to worry about is yourself. A blog is also a great way to keep up the momentum with regular writing. I try to write 1-2 posts per week, and sometimes I’ll stack up posts during the holidays and schedule them for times when I know I’ll be busy, and the fun would get sucked out of trying to write. I’ve had posts which have received only a handful of views, and others which have had hundreds. But they’re all fun to write, which is why i keep at it.
Those things you write for fun often turn into something bigger, too. Keeping the blog active was what lead to the Practical Reading Strategies book. Some of the posts have been picked up and the ideas have evolved into articles in magazines and newspapers. And some of them have resulted in me going in unexpected directions with my own studies, such as the Artificial Intelligence rabbit hole.
The last logical step to all of the above styles of writing is to write professionally. It took a while – and a bit of cajoling from my wife – before I agreed to call myself an author. The self imposed label of “I’m a teacher” can be pretty strong and hard to shake, and it wasn’t until I had several co-authored textbooks, a book of my own, and a few years of writing under my belt that I felt like calling myself a professional writer.
But it does stack up, and after a while you’ll notice that you’ve actually got quite a decent list of publications to your name. For me, that includes several textbooks for English teachers, both statewide and national. I have written text guides for students, articles for Teacher, The Age, and other education publications, and many pieces for the English association magazine, VATE’s Idiom. I’ve also had several science short stories published, including one in Australia’s biggest sf and speculative fiction magazine, Aurealis. I’ve currently got three books under contract, two of which will be publications as big as PRS. Now I’ve started writing, it seems like I can’t stop.
Maybe you’ll find something you’re passionate enough about to make a career – or at least part of one – out of writing.
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