Teachers as Writers: Earned Expertise

by Phip Ross

I get the honor of talking with teachers about their practice fairly regularly. I could say it’s part of my job, but it’s really not how I think of the work. The way each of us go about cracking that nut which is effective practice is pretty fascinating and every classroom context presents its unique dynamics.

A few items I return to in my own practice and will often use as a topic I enjoy discussing with others are these:
• What is the stated purpose of any one activity or assignment and does it take root in or translate to the individual?
• Am I having at least one exchange with each student by name and reflecting on their needs and experience?
• How much time do students get to talk, to write, to read?

Some brief comments on each of these . . .

Purpose: Briefly, the first one is about communicating what the skills being practiced as part of the assignment or project and the usefulness of the skills beyond that assignment—regularly and frequently. As for myself, and I think this applies to others too, I get in my teaching bubble, so focused on designing the assignment and revising it, and thinking about how students are working or not working with it, I neglect the usefulness of purpose, which will often highly influence motivation. If students understand—frankly a pretty big “if” even when I am being regularly explicit about purpose—that is half the win. That is a light bulb popping on inside the student, not outside of the student’s recognition: What can be gained in studying and practicing this skill?

One student emailed me months after our class and wrote a note related to my focus on teaching description throughout the quarter as a valuable writing skill and recognizing its frequent use in other writing:

“Good morning Phip,
This is what impresses me every single moment I read newspaper articles. For example, the images in first paragraph.
Strolling down fith ave…….
The images show his hands full … and I can imagine the feeling of the person at that moment.”

A light bulb was shining inside. Frequent and regular purpose statements and discussing those with students can help plant seeds that can take root at some point and keep growing. Sometimes, at least.

Names & Faces: I see this happening effectively quite often. Teachers take the time to conference with students, greet them, call on them by name, use their eyes to see a student, sit next to them and offer an encouraging word or simply wait. Show me a teacher who sees each of his or her students and I’ll show you a teacher who has created the space for students to ask questions, take risks, and have some fun in the process. At the heart of this is a relationship of trust and care. Small acts do this.

Practice: This idea is about getting teachers to share more space with their students—more space for their voices, reading, and writing. How much time did we spend today actually writing? It is a writing class, why are we not writing for part of the class? I talk too much, and I’m guessing you do too. We have a lot to say, I totally get that. Air space saturated with a teacher voice, even if your voice is Bocelli-like silk, is not conducive to learning. Mine is definitely not silk, I have to remind myself.

Class time can be a space where students reflect on their learning—strategies, progress, challenges, fleshing out of ideas–and for teachers to take that time to put pen to paper as well.

The National Writing Project principle is that the best teachers of writing are teachers who write. I have written many essays in response to my own assignment instructions. Just bending to the task of writing is something we regularly ask students to do but often do not do enough of ourselves.

Back in 1985, Tim Gillespie wrote an essay in a NWP newsletter “Becoming Your Own Expert—Teachers as Writers.” What happens when we write . . .
• We give ourselves a chance to test our own writing assignments
• We demystify the act of writing
• We learn empathy for our students
• We become full participants and partners in our classes

In other words, writing makes us experts on teaching writing. “Our reflective interaction with our own writing efforts informs and animates our interactions with our student writers,” Gillespie explains.

My colleague Dick Nielsen writes every day and agrees with many of Gillespie’s observations. It keeps up his teaching steam, and I believe helps him keep his students’ steam up too. He knows of what he speaks.

Gillespie knows what kind of feedback he needs to keep writing and becomes keenly aware to his own students’ work. That is a goal: What do students need to keep working on a project?

Insights from writing ourselves creates knowledge that is earned, Gillespie concludes.

Other practices that create space for reading together, the sharing in pairs and groups, where the teacher’s voice is one among many being heard and listened to are part of what can be called a learning-centered classroom.


Phip Ross, Southeast Community College English Department Co-Chair and NDEC Leadership Member, can be reached via email here.