I’ve been meaning to write a new manifesto about my philosophy as a writing teacher as my praxis has evolved since my previous declarations developed. The Writing Teacher’s Oath that I wrote last summer certainly plays a role in this, but that oath focused on a more universal truth about the teaching of writing whereas what I do in my classroom is specific to me and my context as must be all good teaching practice. In recent years I have been engaged in the process of developing a writing ecosystem in my classes that makes me very happy as both a writing instructor and a scholar of writing studies. I have told the story of my #HyperDocs and #Ungrading journeys in other blog posts just as I have highlighted my use of themes emphasizing personal values, snaps, and an inquiry-based author’s agenda, but I have not written a post exploring how that all those elements work together to create my writing studio classroom and I am long overdue for an explanation of the reasoning behind those decisions. It is also important to note that each of these individual practices are part of a larger praxis and so we will begin there as I explore the following questions that will hopefully inspire you to consider your own answers: What kind of teacher are you? What kind of teacher do you want to be?
Studio or Workshop?
My praxis leans heavily into a workshop approach for teaching writing. Each unit initiates with grounding work designed to inspire discussion, thinking, and writing that takes place within a supportive community of writers then as ideas develop we shift our community focus from supporting thinking to supporting writing. We practice freewriting throughout the unit to continually weave in new and evolving ideas. But “workshop” carries a lot of baggage and is a practice that has long been hijacked and co-opted when we discuss the idea of the writing workshop. In my mind I prefer to use the term writer’s studio when I think about the writing ecosystem I am building for my students. I want to center the writer not the writing and I want to focus on writing as art and craft rather than some product we are building or repairing. I want the writers in my care to see themselves as part of a larger creative endeavor that is a shared experience. Yes, writing is hard work but so is music, dance, and yoga, and all sorts of rewarding arts and practices and I never want my students to think about writing as simple assembly work. I also love the sense of community that often forms around a studio where artists gather and share and learn from each other – not just the leader. Most of my students do not understand the debate between workshop or studio, but they learn during our first weeks together that our community is a welcoming and supportive creative space. It is important for every teacher to think about the tone they want to create in their classroom and central to that is considering their why: when was the last time you asked yourself what problem your class solved for your students? I find it helpful to think about the metaphor or model I want to use to describe my pedagogy (see ecosystem) but also the other practices that influence me as both a writer and teacher (see yoga). But both ecosystems and yoga have taught me two important principles: grounding my practice and the importance of balance. What life influences inform your pedagogy?
It’s Not A Process!
At the core of my pedagogy is the belief that we are not, and should not, be teaching writing as a process at all. We need to stop using the term writing process. There is not a universal writing process because writers are individuals who think and work in wildly different ways. There is not a universal writing process because writing tasks and contexts vary hugely. Mix those elements together and there are, in fact, infinite variations of writing processes. I believe this: “We are harming our students by teaching writing as a process when engaging in so many writing tasks looks nothing like that regimented production line.” This is why the first weeks of every unit in my class are playful, experimental, and exploratory. I offer up inspiration from a variety of sources from poetry to TED talks to research articles and all are curated to help my students consider their own experiences and knowledge in a new framework. Students take up this challenge by sharing and connecting then finding inspiration in those connections. It is messy and exciting and looks nothing like the prewriting activities so often touted by writing textbooks. This work also takes place across time and space, not in a traditional classroom space, because human minds and lives are not in synch and that is why I love teaching asynchronously using logbooks. Even the students who missed a whole week of class due to [pick one: life event, pandemic, choice] can still find inspiration in this messy work because we have preserved it which also means all the writers can return to the logbook again and again throughout the unit (or even return to a previous unit) to touch base with their original inspiration or seek new muses. Do your writers enter the work with a sense of joy and wonder? My student reflections frequently include the word “fun” – do yours?
#Ungrading: A mindset
Some years into my journey with #ungrading I have realized that ungrading is not really a specific practice. There are, in fact, a wide range of practices in a wide range of contexts. If you are new to thinking about #ungrading then I suggest diving in via Twitter. That is how I found the mentors who inspired my journey, but now there is also an Ungrading book which inspired a more formal community. Exploring the different approaches taken in a wide variety of teaching contexts can help you better understand how ungrading might look in your own. My ungrading journey has been long and included many iterations. My current iteration includes a combination of weekly self-assessments (focusing on the three priorities of the class: the work, community support, and reflection) and reflection. Students reflect at the conclusion of each week and unit as well as at the end of the semester. Self-assessment gives students control over their grade in the class and reflection focuses our conversations on their writing, their thinking, and their goals. Reading and discussing those reflections as a paired text with the work of the unit brings me so much joy. Does your assessment system bring you joy? Is the work you put into assessment an investment in your students or in service to a dysfunctional and punitive education system?
I love teaching with #HyperDocs as they make living, learning, and teaching so much easier. This was true before the pandemic and now that we are all struggling with reduced capacity (in every way) HyperDocs are even more important as a survival strategy. Moving all my lessons and activities into HyperDocs was a major lift, but after I created my own HyperDoc templates it became so much easier to create new lessons and activities because the basic structure is already decided. Following that simple structure makes it so much easier for my students as they know how each lesson or activity will flow and it is easy to plan their week due to the predictable workflow. Perhaps most important for my students and myself HyperDocs force me to channel Marie Kondo with each lesson and activity (is this useful, does it spark joy). But it was the addition of logbooks to my HyperDoc system that was a true gamechanger for me and my students.
Logbooks are simple Google docs created using tables. My first logbooks were Google sheets but I like the ability to use comments and various other format options that Google docs offer. I set up each logbook with headings that outline the workflow of the unit. For example, the narrative argument unit we recently completed included columns for Play Snap (an exploration of games and play), Lesson Snap (stories about the lessons learned from games and play), Workshop, and Showcase. I included hyperlinks to the instructions to guide the work for each column so students can easily check their work. Each’s weeks work in my classes requires students to interact with the work of their peers — seeking out intersections and connections between their work against expectations. Every week students are expected to post some work to the logbook – work that will guide their thinking and writing for the unit deliverable (which is shared in the Showcase column). Every week students are expected to interact with the writing and ideas of their peers in ways designed to inspire their thinking and writing and offer helpful feedback for their peers. These interactions create a synergy that supports critical thinking and writing. Any time that a student needs inspiration they can take a walk around our writing studio (logbook) to look at what others are thinking about and working on. By the time students are ready to complete their deliverable for the unit, if they have stayed at least somewhat within the unit workflow, they will receive a lot of feedback about their ideas, stories, and argument. I use logbooks to support a community of writers as they explore and experiment and write. I love that logbooks simultaneously create the energy and excitement of a busy studio while offering writers the agency to work at their own pace and in the space of their choosing. I believe logbooks offer the best of both worlds (synchronous and asynchronous learning).
Form and Function
I cannot close this manifesto describing the current iteration of my philosophy of teaching writing without including my thoughts about the form and function of teaching writing. I am a firm believer in #authenticwriting which includes writing ideas and purposes that are important to the writer as well as writing for someone other than a teacher or test. As a result I work to build my classes around the principles of project-based learning. These beliefs drive the forms that writing takes in my classroom, but I also believe in the power and magic of writing to cause change in our lives and world and that belief drives the function of writing my classroom. This is why I teach with themes that inspire an exploration of our personal values and stories. This is why I teach rhetorical analysis and a major reason I do not use a textbook and instead rely on open access sources. At the beginning of every writing session with my students I ask them to write down the words: I am a writer – because I believe that everyone is a writer – even if they do not yet know their power. I am a writing evangelist and my work is devoted to making writers. What is your work? I hope my manifesto inspires you to explore that question and your own praxis.