Photo by Shahrokh Dabiri
Article by Jeanne Lesinski

Five years ago while my son swam as I sat under the pavilion of a public pool, my book and notebook open and a pen in hand, someone behind me called out insightfully, "You must be a teacher. They're the only ones taking classes in the summer." Though not entirely correct, this pool watcher's comment described me well.

Many people believe that teachers enjoy three months of summer playtime. Not so. Many are rewriting lesson plans to be more effective the next time taught. Others are taking the professional development (PD) classes necessary to refresh their knowledge and keep their licenses active. As a long-time writer but relatively recent recipient of a teaching license, I am new to PD. Yet even as I was earning my license, I knew that at some point in my teaching career I would participate in the National Writing Project (NWP) because I have always been critical of George Orwell's quip, "Those who can do. Those who can't teach." I was determined to be a writer-teacher or teacher-writer and knew that NWP groomed teachers for this role. So when I spied the brochure for the local version of NWP in the Delta College English office, I made a copy and shoved it in my book bag.

A few weeks later, when visiting the school my son attends, I mentioned to a couple English teachers my possible participation in NWP. Independently of each other, they said, "Do it. It will change your life." Change my life? I wondered. Hyperbole. Yet, I was intrigued because for several years my writing and teaching lives had been fertilizing each other while competing with each other for my attention and energy. All the while, life had been unfolding in its puzzling mosaic of joys and challenges, celebrations and tragedies.

The Saginaw Bay Writing Project (SBWP), the local version of NWP, accepts teachers in all disciplines grades K-16, even those, like me, who are not employed full time. They come from all disciplines—not just English—because writing across the curriculum is very important to learning content. The group I became a part of when I finally committed to this four-week intensive class (6 hrs daily, M-F) at Saginaw Valley State University included teachers at all levels: lower and upper elementary, middle school, special education, high school, and college. They came from a variety of Mid-Michigan school districts and from a number of content areas, including social studies and self-contained special ed classrooms.

A month prior to the start of the workshop, at orientation at SVSU I met my instructors, Michael Somers from Delta College, and Amber White from North Branch Schools. They introduced themselves as once having been participants in SBWP themselves and spoke enthusiastically of the project. I eyed Somers uneasily because as colleagues we had chatted online about my reservations about the course (I had challenged him on the concept of using writing prompts and expressed my aversion to them). They handed out to the assembled group the books—including a blank journal—a syllabus, and homework assignments to be completed before the first official session a month later.

After the orientation, I grabbed my open umbrella from the floor of the Zahnow Library and hopped into the elevator. Thinking deeply about my discomfort and wondering what I'd gotten myself into, I realized only as I exited the elevator and saw the startled looks of the student library desk workers that I was holding my umbrella up as if it were raining. An image of Mary Poppins flashed before me.

Thinking about Thinking

Meta-cognition, or thinking about thinking, is a hallmark of good teaching. We train ourselves to plan lessons with specific goals in mind, to assess student learning, and to modify lessons to achieve greater success. One portion of the SBWP involves "teachers teaching teachers." In other words, along with guest teachers, we all presented demonstration lessons that exemplified best practices, that is well-proven techniques, for teaching certain content or writing strategies. In response groups, we analyzed these demonstrations, suggesting ways that they might be improved and/or adapted to use at other grade levels and for other subjects. We each created research projects to take back to our classrooms to complete in the fall.

A main focus of the project is to improve participants' writing skills by writing often and stepping outside ourselves to look at our strengths and weaknesses as writers. We began by creating a "writer's collage" in which we answered questions about our beliefs, preferences, influences, and strengths. One evening as I sat in bed with my notebook open and tried to answer the question "What are your strengths as a writer?" I was stymied by my inner critic. How can this be so hard, I wondered. I've been a published writer for over 20 years. I didn't know then that I was going to be pushed to go further than I imagined.

Another requirement of the project is to write a personal piece that is published at course's end in an anthology distributed to participants and their school districts. For many teachers, this piece—a memoir having "something to do with teaching or learning," polished over the course of the workshop—is their first published work. No doubt could remain as to the incentive created for writers (the workshop teachers or their students during the academic year) by the opportunity for meaningful publication of writings. This is another instance when putting teachers into the seats as students can lead to eye-opening insights. How can teachers make assignments meaningful, so that students buy-in to the learning process? Giving students the option to choose subject matter for writing and opportunities to some how publish (share with other readers) came to the fore.  

The Teacher Demon

For many reasons, students resist learning what teachers offer. Despite being a teacher, I am no exception. I am a resistent learner where personal writing is concerned, believing that poetry and memoir especially need to be written as the result of personal imperative, from true need that overpowers everything else in the writer's life. At least, that has been my experience. So, the writer's notebook and "sacred writing time" (during which we were supposed to devotedly write each day) were particularly challenging for me because I am used to writing at odd moments and in my head, or getting up and moving around, or talking out my writing, or writing stealthily in the middle of the night. In a high school classroom, I realized, I would probably be labeled a "problem child."  Prior to presenting my teaching demonstration, I was chatting online instead of writing in my notebook. Unintentionally I told the recipient, "I've gotta go, 10 min before my teacher demon." To preface my demo, I admitted my transgression (and Freudian slip) as comic relief.

My colleagues were amused by my penchant for sitting in a different seat each day, which earned me the moniker "seating chart wildcard" and in the end managed to show how mixing up student seating changes everyone's perspective. The supportive classroom atmosphere of sharing writing in small response groups as if "what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas" allowed everyone to trust each other, proving that building a respectful classroom community is worth the time and effort. With writing guru Natalie Goldberg's prompts, or suggested writing topics, I found myself unexpectedly broaching subjects that were important to me as a person but that I had avoided tackling previously. I learned shortly afterward that part of the beauty of prompts is making them optional, so that the resistent writer, feeling free to opt out, accepts the challenge. Forced to reassess the value of writing prompts, I admitted grudgingly that they have value.  

Other surprises awaited me: A visit to the Theodore Roethke home museum in Saginaw evoked an uncomfortable flashback to memories of my own German ancestors. A teaching demonstration about inspiration and empathy caught me where I was most vulnerable, forcing me in tears to exit class abruptly. When I was challenged by Somers to "go further" in my own writing, which happened to be a very painful personal exploration in poetic form that I'd shared with him, I became angry and wrote ******* in my writer's notebook. During a break I mentioned directing my anger at him; he simply smiled and said, "But you know I'm right." He was—and I knew it, even then.  

I have long known that thoughts often do not become real until they are some how said, whether aloud or on the page. I needed the push to find the courage to delve deeply into myself. I also needed the vision of others to help me silence my obsessive inner critic, the one that had allowed me to devalue myself as a writer and as a person. The affirmation I received from the instructors and participants helped me correct this skewed view of myself. Although I tucked the personal poem I wrote for catharsis in my binder and drafted a humorous prose piece for the final read-around and anthology, the three women in my writing response group knew my other side, and the work that had teared all of our eyes.  

Over the course of four intense weeks that felt oddly like some kind of spiritual retreat, everyone learned to offer constructive feedback, as revise, revise, revise became the mantra. Finally, during the read-aloud celebration of our anthology pieces, we were amazed and moved by the amassed collection of tales, many both humorous and poignant. All were heartfelt because we'd been enticed to go further.

© Jeanne Lesinski, 2010