This year, my beat, much like my job as a literacy consultant, is about taking care of the grown ups. I love that my job gives me the space to ask teachers and principals what they need and how I can help them. Right now, taking care of the grownups seems like a monumental task because things are hard. Really hard. And sometimes it feels like there isn’t much I can do that would make any difference at all.
Sometimes it feels like time runs together and I don’t know which day of the week it is. And with the holidays feeling a little less than festive, it’s hard to want to pay attention to what’s going on outside of our own survival. But, I can’t help but notice that here we are in our final week of #NaNoWriMo.
A couple of years ago, I wrote on here about how, as educators, our own writing is a form of self care – that it’s important for us to engage in authentic writing processes so that we can better teach our students to navigate the ins and outs of real writing. But, I have to admit, this year has given me plenty of reasons to question my own stance on this. Most days find me juggling my job and taking care of my own kids (and probably not doing a particularly good job at either), so I can’t help but get nervous that throwing writing into the mix is just too much. Is my position really still that I should advocate for teachers to write? Even now when they’re overloaded, scared, and beaten down?
This year, I entered into #NaNoWriMo with great trepidation. I strongly considered ignoring the month and saying to myself, “maybe next year, Kortlandt. This one’s a wash.” But I ended up deciding to give it a go anyway. To tell the truth, I think that I couldn’t take one more thing that I love getting cancelled. No, I haven’t finished writing a novel (and I don’t expect to within the next week), but I did write. And during the most stressful, which-end-is-up year I’ve ever experienced, I’m going to call that a win. And I learned some things about myself and about writing during this turbulent time, the most important of which is the answer to my question of if I should still advocate for teachers to write:
Yes. Write – even now – especially now.
Continuing to write when the rest of the world felt like it’s on fire helped me to feel a little more like me. It helped me to keep some normalcy. And it helped me to reflect on what it means to be a teacher writer these days. I’m still wrestling with this thinking, and I’m sure it will continue to evolve, but for now, these are my three key understandings about being a teacher-writer these days:
- Make the commitment to root yourself in your ‘why,’ and write.
This goes back to that age-old “why do we have to do this?” question. If there isn’t a good answer, then that kind of speaks for itself. If you’re making yourself write each day, but you don’t have a reason for it, then chances are, it won’t be very meaningful for you. This month, I did a lot of different kinds of writing each day. Sometimes I worked on a professional writing project, and other days I tried my hand at some more creative noodling. And sometimes, all I wanted to do was journal some of the day’s moments. Each time I sat down to write, instead of pushing myself toward an artificial goal or word count, I tried to honor how I was feeling that day and what I needed as a writer.
Throughout the month, as I flowed back and forth between the different types of writing I wanted to do each day, I kept a list of the different reasons behind each: What was driving me to pick up a pen or sit down at the keyboard even though I was exhausted? So far, this is what I’ve come up with.
An incomplete list of reasons to write – even now – especially now
- To quiet your thoughts.
- To wake them up.
- To make sense of a day where nothing really makes sense.
- To channel your anger or your pain.
- To kindle your joy.
- To document snapshots of a history you wish you weren’t living.
- To remember the snapshots you’re thankful that you get to experience.
- To give voice to ideas that aren’t heard enough.
- To amplify those who need to be heard.
- To connect with others.
- To spend time with only your own thoughts.
- To put yourself in the shoes of students being asked to write in new spaces.
- To feel like you’ve done a thing.
- Give yourself permission to show up as the writer you need to be each day. There were days that I knew I was getting tight on a deadline, but if I was having a hard time connecting with that particular project, I gave myself permission to lean into the kind of writing that did feel right that day. There were also plenty of days when I probably didn’t write much more than my to-do list. And I think that, at least this year, that might be okay. You will have days where writing just will not flow. Don’t beat yourself up about it. There will be days when you realize everything you’ve written is garbage. Be okay with it. This is true of writers all the time, and now we’re in a pandemic and our worlds have been upended. For pete’s sake, give yourself some grace. And, by the same token, don’t apologize when the writing IS going well. I’ve felt that pressure, too. When everything shut down this spring, I found myself in a heck of a reading and writing slump. Really could not pick up a book or a pen no matter how hard I’d tried, and then as that slowly started to fade and I felt myself getting back into the groove of reading and writing, I almost felt a kind of survivor’s guilt. I’d hear other people say that they were still experiencing that slump, and I felt like I had to hide the fact that I wasn’t anymore. Now, I’m finding it to be less of a judgment and more of just a state of being. We’re going to have good days and bad days, and it’s up to us to give ourselves the grace to accept them both.
- Reflect on how your students might experience their writing lives in similar and different ways. This is one of the biggest reasons I advocate for teachers to write, and I think it’s even more true now during this mess of pandemic teaching. If you’re doing something that you ask your students to do, you’re not only going to be more empathetic of their experiences, but you’ll understand the nuanced skills that go along with it. For example, if you have a student who’s struggling to get back in the groove of writing after a slump, you’ll not only understand how it feels, but you might be able to talk through some of the little tricks that you found to work for yourself. Speaking of tricks, when I was stuck and writing was hard, I never turned to a formula or having someone tell me what to write. Instead, when I was stuck, I found that the following things (in no particular order) helped the words start flowing again:
- Talk to someone about what I’m thinking of writing.
- Read something in a similar genre and style of what I’m trying to write.
- Reread something I’ve already written and try to add to or change something.
- Jot ideas however incomplete they may be.
- Return to jots and messy thinking with the goal to expand on one.
After I started to notice there was a pattern to some of my tricks for getting writing when I was stuck, I reflected to identify them but then also to realize that, although they worked for me, the same tricks might not work for every writer. What was important for me to realize was that some tricks worked some days, and others didn’t. As a writer, I needed my own store of tricks, and I needed to hone my reflection skills enough to be able to navigate which tricks might work in each writing slump kind of situation. As a teacher, I realized that this would not be a simple mini-lesson. It’s much easier to assign writing steps or prompts, but teaching students the metacognitive skills needed to navigate their own writing processes will pay off with students engaging in a more authentic, meaningful writing experience. And I don’t think I would have been able to come to that conclusion as an educator if I wasn’t also writing and reflecting on my writing experiences.
We’re getting ready to start the last month in what is surely the longest year of our lives. Schools are swinging back and forth between in-person, hybrid, and remote learning. There’s an unsettled feeling of not knowing how long this will last before the next big change. And no matter whether you’re a coach or a teacher or an administrator, there’s this pervasive feeling that we’re not doing enough or doing it well enough. It’s exhausting. And it’s easy to think of things like starting up a writing habit or taking on a challenge like #NaNoWriMo as being one thing too many. But, if you give yourself the grace to show up as the writer you are and to write for reasons that are rooted in who you are, I’d argue that it might help you connect with a more authentic writing instruction – even now. Especially now.
What are you learning about your own writing life these days? How are you connecting your writing life to your teaching? I’d love to continue the conversation in the comments below, on facebook, or on Twitter @megankortlandt.
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