I have written before about my mentor Nancy Peterson who led the Morehead Writing Project before I even understood what that meant. One of Nancy’s core pieces of advice, oft-repeated by those of us who were mentored by her, is to be the thing that you teach. But three conversations I experienced this week brought home to me that while this belief is, and will always be, important to me as a teacher, there is another guiding principle: believe the writer.
Thursday evening I had the privilege to attend a National Writing Project session led by my friend Tanya Baker where she interviewed Willie Carver, another friend, and asked him to share selected poems and stories. One of the poems that Willie shared was specifically selected by Tanya because it spoke to this idea of not just being the thing that you teach but believing it so fiercely that your students believe they are the thing that you teach. The National Writing Project has taught me many things, but this simple lesson is the most important: believe the writer. Believing your students can be, in fact are, the thing that you teach is at the heart of being a rock star teacher.
In recent years, since I fully leaned into my writing-marathon-style teaching method, I instruct my students to write the words “I am a writer” into their notebook every class meeting as part of our bell ringer writing. In part, this ritual is to help them believe that message through repetition. But it is other essential elements of my praxis that reinforce that both message and practically demonstrate my belief. We write and share our writing in every class, but more than that we engage in authentic writing and together we celebrate and commiserate and contemplate our words and messages.
Another recent experience that helped frame my belief (so that it is not believe in the writer) was listening to Ezra Klein interview the poet Jane Hirshfield. I will definitely need to listen to this interview again as there is so much terrific life and writing advice as well as delightful discussions of poetry, but for the purposes of this blog post I want to focus on her discussion of Zen study where she notes that the practice is not as important as its effect on your life and ways of moving about in the world (this is what I took from her words and should not be confused with an actual summary or even paraphrase as it is lifted entirely out of context). I am a writer not just because I write but because of the ways I live as a writer even when I am not writing and the ways that being a writer impacts my life. It is absolutely essential that I believe in my students, but it is even more important that I believe them when they show me who they are when they live as writers. I repeatedly give my students the opportunity to show me they are writers and I believe them when they do.
Two of my students brought that lesson home to me this week. The first student was writing in response to a National Writing Project lesson where we look for the arguments in our daily lives, examine the root causes and symptoms of that argument, and then explore the ecosystem of that argument. Throughout the semester we have not only engaged in authentic writing, but we have also focused on an authentic audience and my student declared that our university administration (naming names and titles) will receive a copy of his argument essay. This is a first year writing student who intends to become a mounted police officer (so not an English or communications major) and has learned the power of their voice and words. The second student is still struggling to wrap up our rhetorical analysis unit. They have an essay. They have a unit reflection. But they also have many pages of passionate notes about the game they have chosen to analyze, many written with our community in class, and not all of it can or should fit in either essay or reflection. But it is not cutting or editing those precious words that is holding the student back. The student wants the world to appreciate all that this game can offer and is fearful of falling short. This first year writing student is showing me they are a writer and I believe them.
My hope is that long after I retire or pass on to the great writer’s room in the sky, there will be those who remember that not only did I live my life as a writer but I also helped others live as writers too because I believed.
If you want to learn how to believe the writer then I recommend seeking out a National Writing Project site near you to attend a Summer Institute. The Morehead Writing Project’s Summer Institute is offered online each summer. If you are not certain if the National Writing Project life is for you then check out NWP’s Write Now Teacher Studio.
I also recommend that you order Willie Carver’s book right now!