One of the things I have missed the most about pre-pandemic teaching and learning is writing with my students. In the before time, I taught my two-course first-year writing classes as hybrid classes which meant I saw most of my students in person at least once a week. We almost always began those in-person sessions with a writing prompt. In addition, there would usually be a few classes scattered throughout the semester when we would embark on a marathon writing session. This meant that we would spend the whole class period just writing and sharing our writing in the community of writers we had created together.
I really really really miss writing with my students.
I have been fortunate as a writer that the pandemic has brought me the opportunity to connect with writers of all ages located around the world. Engaging with the Morehead Writing Project’s Dispatches From Home community in the spring to the National Writing Project’s #WriteAcrossAmerica in the summer provided the framework for the Morehead Writing Project’s Write Out Kentucky this fall which led to the still-forming Writing Our Way Out community.
While those events feed me as a writer and sustained me as a human, as a writing teacher I need to spend time writing and sharing with my students.
I have arranged some Google Meet sessions where my students and I engaged in rounds of writing and sharing intended to inspire their work on upcoming projects, but too many students did not participate. Due to the upheavals caused by the pandemic I have fallen back on asynchronous learning with synchronous options. This is better for my students, mostly, but I miss them. I know there are many reasons for students opting out of synchronous meetings – especially those focused on writing, most of the reasons have nothing to do with me or the class, but I still feel that failure to convince my students of the powerful magic such sessions invoke. The truth is that we all need more writing marathons in our lives and in our classrooms.
Writing marathons are good for our souls
We all know that 2020 has been a lot. Too much. But even in the best of years life can be hard, overwhelming, heartbreaking. A writing marathon can be balm for your soul when life is rough and when you need to gird yourself to overcome life’s challenges. I have often used writing as a release valve for the pressure that students feel at midterm or end of semester or the trepidation at the start of their first year of college. Midterm and finals are common pressure points in the academic year, but we also know there are pressure points in the human calendar as well. Here on planet Earth, especially here in the United States of America, we are entering a season of darkness and struggle and we will all need to find comfort and release as we can. I recommend the writing marathon as a solution. As I noted years ago about an end-of-year writing marathon, “I have taught these students many lessons over the course of the semester, but I wonder if this was the most important lesson of all – the power of words to heal and to detoxify.”
Writing marathons are good for our writers
One of my core beliefs, unshaken after decades of teaching first-year writing, is that everyone is a writer. Of course, that same experience has driven home to me again and again that one of the fatal flaws of the U.S. education system is the way we teach writing K-16. There are many systems in place to maim and scar young writers (as well as their writing teachers) and I wish with all my heart that we could burn those systems out root, stem, and branch. Because we have created an education system that only values graded writing and combined it with unsustainable teaching loads, too few of our writers have spent any amount of time engaged in writing. And due to the high-stakes nature of so much instruction and assessment, little of that writing is allowed to be for the joy of writing. We need to work on the stamina and endurance of our writers and we need to help them develop the writing habit. This is one of the primary goals of starting my classes with bell ringers. Developing writers need to train their brains and writing marathons are a great place to develop their writing muscles.
Writing marathons are good for our inspiration
Another pervasive threat to writers is the way we stifle their voices and their creativity. In too many writing classrooms, the writing begins with rules and not freedom to explore ideas and feelings. Good writing requires many things, but rules are near the bottom of my list of priorities. I want my students to write their truth. I want my students to think. Good writers take risks and make discoveries about themselves and the world, but too often writing instruction allows little room for either. The writing marathon offers us a place to discover our truths and open our hearts and our minds. The writing marathon helps writers discover words and worlds we never knew we contained.
The writing marathon is one of the simplest classroom tools we have to offer to feed the writer whether that writer is you, the instructor, or the writers in your care. All you need are writers and some time to write and share together. I have carved out class time and asked students to pull out their notebooks and I have offered Zoom sessions for colleagues and their students where writers needed to sign up in advance. While many traditional writing marathons, inspired by the New Orleans Writing Marathon and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, are invitational and only include writers who choose to write and share, I have successfully used the writing marathon format in my classroom for years. As I’ve noted, sometimes I use marathons to jumpstart class projects and other times I use marathons to help us work through stress or celebrate our community at the end of the semester. I have loved every writing marathon I have ever participated in or led because writers are writers are writers and when writers write together magic happens.
I hope you will take up this invitation to deploy more writing marathons for the writers in your life, in your classroom, and in your school. The National Writing Project offers many writing marathon planning resources including: Writing Marathon Planning Resource, Writing Marathon Infographic, and NWP Radio show “Creating Writing Marathons.” I have also used writing marathons to introduce pre-service and practicing teachers to NWP work through the years. How can I help bring you into this work? Curious about this work? Then come join the Writing Our Way Out community. Or sign up for the Morehead Writing Project’s Winter Institute and you can become one of us!