Permission to Play

The other night, my four year old broke my heart. “Why don’t you ever play with us?” he asked.

“What do you mean? I play with you all the time!” I responded, obviously feeling defensive from the sting of his question. My kids are the loves of my life. I try to spend as much time with them as is humanly possible for a mom who’s also a teacher.

“No,” he pushed back. “You are always makin’ dinner or doin’ somethin’ else.”

I paused and, in my head, did a quick inventory of what I’d done during the time we’d spent together recently:

  • prepare meals
  • empty and reload dishwasher
  • pick up mess
  • schlep the kids to the store to pick out a birthday present for their cousin
  • read stories

He was right. I was with them, but I was so busy with the day-to-day work of being a parent that I wasn’t doing what they really needed: spending time with them doing what they were doing.   

This struggle reminds me of one I’ve noticed in the classroom, too.

My students regularly keep track of how they spend their workshop time, but aside from conference notes and formative data, I hadn’t really been keeping track of how I’d been spending my own time, so I challenged myself to start. In a week, my inventory for how I spent my workshop time included:

  • Conferences – lots of them
  • Get kids caught up after absences
  • Pull small groups for guided instruction and re-teaching
  • Answer emails
  • Read over a mentor text I plan to use the next day
  • Pretty up an anchor chart
  • Enter notes on goals into the online gradebook

I’m sure that inventory looks familiar to you. But there’s a big, gaping hole there. My students were hard at work writing. Why wasn’t I? I see myself as a writer, but I wasn’t actually spending my time that way. Sure, I was busy. We’re teachers. OF COURSE we’re busy. But I worry that sometimes I get so wrapped up in the work of being busy that I neglect what’s really important: playtime.  

Now, I don’t want you to get the wrong idea when I use the word “playtime.” Writing alongside our students is fun. I think most of us, when we reflect on why we became English teachers, think back to our own love for writing and reading. (At least I hope you do.) But just because it’s “fun” doesn’t mean it isn’t important.

Once I became so painfully aware of the gaping playtime holes in my home and classroom habits, I made a kind of resolution to carve out a few minutes for playtime every day. And in doing so, I was reminded that writing alongside our students is one of the most important instructional moves we can make – both for our students and for ourselves.

Modeling the Mess

I think we can all agree on the value of modeling the writing that we’re teaching in class, but too often we turn to preparing something outside of class for that modeling. We do this sometimes to save time, but if we’re really honest with ourselves, we do it more often to save face. We want to present something that’s neat and tidy and makes it look like we’re in control, like we know what we’re doing. 

Notebook pics
Sharing the messy work of writing helps us to dig into the hard work of writing.

The problem is, slapping a piece of writing that’s done outside of class is no better than waving a magic wand and saying “Accio Rough Draft!” as far as our students are concerned. They need to understand how our words arrive on the page, which means that they need to hear our thinking and see our drafting in all of its messy glory. And I can’t overstate the importance of allowing students to see that mess. It can be uncomfortable to step out of that kind of know-it-all role, but it’s only by doing so that our students are able to see us as writers.


Understanding – really understanding – the hard work of writing

Embracing the mess of writing with students not only helps us to model for our students what our thinking looks like when we hit a roadblock, it helps us better understand the difficulties our students are having. Once we dig into the work of crafting our own arguments or analytic essays, we better understand how a formula doesn’t always help.

The other day, I sat down to confer with a student who was stuck in her writing process. As I listened, I realized she was describing a frustration that was similar to one I’d just experienced in my own writing. One of the best conference moves I think I’ve ever made was to open up my own writer’s notebook and say to her, “You know, that reminds me of what I’m working on. Let’s look at that together.”  

playing aroundSince doing my inventories at home and in my classroom, I’ve been intentional about carving out a few minutes of “playtime” every day – or almost every day. It doesn’t mean that I’ve scrapped all of the other work that’s kept me so busy, but it does mean that some days, the grades get entered after the dismissal bell rings or that the dinner dishes wait a little longer to get done. But you know what? We’re all a little better off for it.

Do you write with your students? How has it impacted your instruction? Connect with me on Twitter @megankortlandt 

– Megan 

1 Comment

  1. When my son was younger he once said to me that I spend more time grading papers than I spend with him. He was about 4 years old and I was shocked and cried. I don’t think I ever brought a paper home to grade after that day, lol. I did write with my students on occasion because I love writing and my fingers itched to jump in too, especially for creative writing.

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