Writing to Learn Isn’t Only For Students

September 8, 2016
Kris Williams

Kris Williams

For decades, educators have been extolling the benefits of literacy support across all age groups and subject-area disciplines. There’s good reason for this enthusiasm, given the compelling research that links higher literacy skills with greater overall academic success.  If we want students to have a wide range of academic options throughout their education, it’s clear that literacy is an important foundational skill.

What we spend less time talking about, even though research supports this as well, are the benefits for educators – teachers, administrators, support staff – that come with writing on a regular basis.  Whether it’s keeping a journal, blogging, or a more formal process used to cap off the day or week, writing is a process that many people use to help them make sense of their lives. While anyone could likely benefit from a recurring reflective practice to help better understand their day-to-day experiences, I would argue that educators may need this type of sense-making process more than any other profession. Here are a few examples of how building a regular practice of writing can positively impact any educator’s work:

  • Writing helps us make meaning out of our experiences. When we spend more time making meaning of things, we make better choices about how to react and adjust the approach we’re taking. In education, we’re constantly testing out small and large theories of action (i.e. “If I provide the students with this example, then they will understand the concept more clearly, which will result in higher quality work from them”).  If we don’t take the time to make sense of the results from testing those theories, we risk wasting our time on things that don’t really work.  
  • When we write as teachers, we are better able to model the practices we want our students to embrace, while also building empathy around the challenges that come with establishing a regular practice of writing.  If we are telling our students that writing regularly helps you grow as a person, and that we should make time for it within our busy schedules, then we should be willing to “walk that talk.”  
  • When we put something in writing, we’re better equipped to share our learning with others. When we write, we make our thinking visible. When we bring our thinking to others, we can add new perspectives to what we’ve learned, which furthers our sense-making opportunities. As educators, it’s common to feel isolated.  Writing can help you connect with others, often in a way that is deeper and more helpful than a short observation or a lunchtime conversation.

Of course, most educators already know about the various benefits of writing and may have already considered doing some writing to support their own professional growth. If that’s the case, then what’s getting in the way of it becoming a more regular habit for teachers?  I’ll take a wild guess and suggest that it may be related to that most powerful obstacle all educators face when trying to fulfill all of the expectations that come with their jobs: TIME

Acknowledging that writing does take time, and that time is probably the one thing that you cannot give more of as an educator, consider that the act of writing may reveal to you previously unseen opportunities in which you could potentially use your time more effectively. In other words, a regular writing habit may actually create more time for you. Also, there may be ways to incorporate writing without having to find another hour in the day. Here are a few tips for making writing a regular habit as an educator:

  • Write when your students write.  Assigning some in-class writing? Take some of that time to write for yourself.  Many teachers like to read with their students during in-class reading time, but why not also write when they’re writing?

  • Focus on frequency rather than length. Just a few sentences a day or at the end of the week can be transformative.  Either establish a reasonable minimum, such as a single paragraph, or set aside ten or fifteen minutes to start.  You might also want to establish a recurring system that reminds you to write on a regular basis (i.e. at the end of grading any assignment; as a personal “exit ticket” each afternoon; for the first ten minutes of your prep period; etc.).

  • You don’t need to shoot for a Pulitzer. Keep in mind that this is really only for you. However, if you do decide to create a blog or share your writing more publicly, give yourself permission to be imperfect in your writing. Again, the goal here is sense-making, not earning a publishing deal.

  • Not sure what to write about? Start with free writing. Consider taking a stream-of-consciousness approach and just writing down whatever is in your head at the moment. Even if your writing has nothing to do with your teaching, or doesn’t really make sense at all, you’ll be amazed at how ideas eventually start to come together out of those free writing exercises.
  • Find an “accountabilibuddy.”  Make an agreement with a colleague that you’ll both work to make writing a regular habit.  Hold each other accountable, but with support. Talk about what is hard, strategies that are working, and share with each other what you’ve written!
  • When you do find time to write, take note of what was helpful and try to recreate it.  As you start to work toward the development of a regular writing habit, take note of the conditions that have helped you make it a part of your life, and work to align your writing time with the availability of those conditions. Also, use that as an opportunity to consider what the conditions might be that work best for your students.   

If you get to the point where you’re comfortable sharing what you’ve written with others, we’d love to help you!  If you’re a New Tech Network educator, send your blogs or articles to me (kwilliams@newtechnetwork.org) or Reming Robitaille (rrobitaille@newtechnetwork.org) and we can provide feedback or help you share it with others. But even if you don’t ever want to share your writing, find ways to make the writing process part of your professional practice. If we really believe the research that says writing increases learning in all content areas and at all age groups, then we should also be finding ways to use it to increase our learning as educators. As many of your students will tell you, it’s not always easy to get started and sharing what you’ve written can make you feel very vulnerable. Perhaps knowing their feelings about writing makes it even more important for us to walk that path with them.

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