Marci Glaus, English Language Arts Education Consultant at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, showcases the Wisconsin Writes series housed at DPI. [PDF version here: How Wisconsin Writes]
Many teachers write in front of their students for teaching and learning purposes. Some choose not to for various reasons, with the common denominator usually being fear. Writing is hard. Sharing a first attempt at writing something is even harder. It took me three attempts to finally sit down and put my thoughts together for this column because the resistance is so strong (Pressfield). I am sure many of you, like me, have developed superfluous rituals that must take place before you can actually do the work of writing, including things like doing laundry, calling your grandmother, brushing your cat, and staring out a window for long periods of time.
We all know that struggle is real, but hiding that struggle from students does not seem productive. It may even promote a message that good writers can generate a flawless piece in one spellbinding sitting. There were several occasions when I could not find the right words or put together brilliant ideas in front of my students while I was teaching, but every time I struggled, students came to the rescue, and the classroom turned to collaborative conversations about word choice, idea generation, thoughtful thesis statements, and much more. These conversations continued during the writing process for students who needed to talk through what was going on in their heads, showcasing the social aspect of writing. I truly believe that the expectation of sharing and talking about our writing yielded better writing in the end.
How do we make a habit of becoming vulnerable in front of our students so they do something as difficult as writing? We can start by observing other writers working through their own writing processes. The Wisconsin Writes series provides opportunities to observe Wisconsin writers from various backgrounds carrying out this demanding work. They share their craft by engaging in part of a writing process and talking out loud about what they are doing as they do it. Their struggles and victories showcase what it looks like, sounds like, and feels like in the midst of a writing process.
For example, Wisconsin’s Poet Laureate Kimberly Blaeser shares not only the exhilaration of starting a new poem, but a glimpse into the recursive nature of writing. In her second writing process video, she struggles over diction, talks through an image she wants to describe, checks her notes for inspiration, and tries out different lines by reading them aloud. In Molly Magestro’s writing process video, viewers observe part of her revision process. Magestro is honest in her assessment of a former draft, including questioning an old idea, feeling stuck for a bit, and managing the consequences of changing just one detail for the rest of her book. She even talks about how she doesn’t like what she has worked on so far, making the ultimate decision to use only the last sentence of the entire paragraph to move forward. Finally, her happiness over coming up with just one sentence after all of this work showcases the true joy of writing alongside the painstaking work of revision.
The Wisconsin Writes series also includes a collaborative writing process. Tasha Schuh, her husband Doug Michaels, and ghost writer Jan Pavloski plan Tasha’s second book in their writing process video. The beauty of capturing a collaborative writing process is the social requirement in general. We see this trio work through clarification of specific details, chronology of events, and stylistic choices based on audience. In their follow-up interview, Schuh, Michaels, and Pavloski guide viewers through the different technologies they use for successful collaborative writing. From a notepad and pen to a digital voice recorder and Google Docs, they share how they have figured out how to use each others’ gifts when they are together and apart, which keeps them motivated and accountable.
One of the most interesting aspects of exploring writing processes is the amount of work that takes place before many writers put a plan into action. When planning a new blog entry, New York Times bestselling author Patrick Rothfuss spends his time quashing the myth of simply sitting down to write. He talks through the importance of minimizing distractions, and once he settles in, he frames the first steps of developing the next blog post focusing on persuasive writing and the myriad audiences involved. Viewers can follow his process through the stories he tells while he collects ideas and notes including links to videos, websites, statistics, and reminders of what to do next.
Author Karyn Saemann talks viewers through what takes place six months before she can write. She shares the massive amounts of research, reading, and organizing of information that goes into planning and learning for her next book. From pictures to census records, the database she keeps for her bibliography emphasizes the importance of crediting all sources she will reference. Saemann’s example writing process helps unlock some of the mystery about writing and the groundwork that takes place before words populate the page.
For some students, writing can seem like some sort of mystery that happens between a person’s brain and fingertips. Providing real examples of how different writers work through the difficulties and celebrations of writing can unlock some of this mystery. Like a Bigfoot sighting, it was a rare occurrence to see any of the writers just sit and write continuously. The real-time commentaries that these writers contribute offer space for us to talk explicitly about different parts of any writing process and encouragement to try it in our classrooms. Kittle (2008) reminds us that students need “to find their own writing process for each piece” (p. 12). She also believes that if we are going to teach students to write, we need to show them how. The featured authors from Wisconsin Writes can help us do that, but the series will eventually come to an end. It is up to us as educators to continue writing with our students, showing them what it means to struggle, to try out, and to succeed.
Kittle, P. (2008). Write beside them: Risk, voice, and clarity in high school writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Pressfield, S. (2002). The war of art: Winning the inner creative battle. New York: Rugged Land.