Our In the Middle Wednesday blog series, written by Nancie Atwell, continues with Nancie taking about her own writing while teaching writing.
What role does your own writing play in your teaching of writing?
My writing plays a practical role in the workshop. I show kids three things: what I do off-the-page that makes it possible for me to write in the first place, techniques of craft that improve my written products, and the significance to me of the topics I choose. These are basic lessons, and they’re essential.
I know I can make teachers nervous when I encourage them to write and demonstrate their process in minilessons. None of us feels that confident about our writing. But anything we do that works for us is worth revealing to student writers.
They need to see, for example, the benefits of drafting double-spaced. Every September my kids tend not to believe in it: they think it wastes paper. When I show them what skipping lines allows me to do—how it gives me room on the page to change my mind—they begin to understand what revision is and how double-spacing makes it possible to rethink and improve a draft. Often, the kids who don’t revise have never seen revision before.
Another lesson involves writing off-the-page. For years it was my little secret—a step I added because I needed it before I could start a first draft. When I write off-the-page, I doodle with diction and ideas on a piece of scrap paper, gain momentum, and kick start the draft. I also play off-the-page to experiment with leads and conclusions, capture ideas and diction that occur to me while I’m drafting so they don’t get lost, consider alternative verbs, and get myself unstuck mid-draft. Because I show students examples of my play off-the-page and encourage them to try it, it does for them what it does for me—relieves self-consciousness and the terror of a blank page and allows all of us to use writing to generate writing.
Something as simple as how much time I spend pausing to read over what I’ve written so far is a revelation to my students. When they ask, “Why do you keep going back and reading the old sentences before you write new ones?" this tells me a lot about problems they’re having with coherence in their drafts.
My first craft lesson of any school year is based on a piece of my writing—a poem, because poetry is our first genre study. I give students copies of the final version and everything it took for me to get there: my writing off-the-page, rat’s nest of drafts, title brainstorm, struggle to develop a theme. This demonstration sets the stage for many of the minilessons to come, and it gives kids immediate insights into process, craft, and the nature of the work that's involved when someone is trying to write well.
Since we can’t get Toni Morrison or Billy Collins to come to our workshops and reveal their processes to our students, the next best thing is for us to experiment as writers, find the strategies and techniques that work for us, and show kids how one grown-up thinks and rethinks on paper.
This blog post is part of In the Middle Wednesdays blog series. Please visit http://www.heinemann.com/InTheMiddle to learn more about Nancie Atwell and the third edition of In the Middle.