If we’re willing to let our students see us struggle through the writing process, we help them to partake in the power of a shared human experience–experiences that allow all of us to feel more connected to the world around us.

This weekend, I joined my neighbors at a little park near my house to stare at the sky. Even though there was a thick sheet of clouds, there was a palpable hope that we would be able to see the Supermoon Eclipse if we just watched long enough. 

Finally, after 20 minutes of waiting, the clouds parted and we were able to see the fully eclipsed moon, red and round, drawing the attention of humans all over the world.

As I walked home, I couldn’t help but think about the value of events like these, where people drop whatever it is they are doing and join with others to observe and engage. It made me wonder how I can create experiences like these in my classroom.

One way to do this is to explicitly connect classroom activities to similar, real world counterparts.

For example, my seniors are currently working on writing personal essays. To help them see the real world application of this task, we’ve spent the past month immersing ourselves in model texts—great essays written by Annie Dillard, Brent Staples, David Sedaris, and others.

Reading these model texts provides a great opportunity for students to observe how professionals might attempt the task they are setting out to do. As we read, I hope that my students will look to these model texts as examples of ways they can experiment with their own style and structure.

Even more valuable, though, is the modeling that I will do for them.

Writing is really hard. This isn’t always clear to students when all their teachers do is allow them to look at professionally edited, polished and published pieces. Model texts are great to analyze as a tool for creating a common vocabulary about a genre, but they can also be daunting for students, especially with genres of writing they may not have much experience creating.

My work with the National Writing Project has firmly established one of my most essential pedagogical beliefs: Teachers of writing need to be writers themselves.

If we want students to feel safe to take risks in our classrooms, we need to let kids see us struggle, not just with the tasks that we are doing, but with our thinking. This transparency is important as it lets students see how those with more life experience figure things out.

When I ask my kids to write, specifically creatively, I always make sure that they watch me struggle with the process so they can see that real writers struggle.

I tell them how every time I sit down to write a blog post or even to craft an email, I often go through multiple, mini brainstorming sessions, idea dumps, and revisions to my work before I ever present it to an audience. I admit that it is tempting when I model writing for my students to only let them into one of the later stages of drafting. And then I dive in and show them the messiness of the early stages. Letting them watch me craft a piece from beginning to end is incredibly valuable. More importantly, though, being vulnerable is and essential part of my teaching practice because it reveals in a concrete way that learning requires effort—even for me.

Obviously, many shared experiences, like Supermoons, firework shows, movie viewings, and concerts, are much harder to recreate in an everyday classroom setting. But starting small and helping students to see that even drafting a paper connects them more closely to the world around them, is a powerful place to start.

Image Credit: Jarosław Jasiński; This file is made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

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