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This guest blog post comes from Priscilla Thomas, an NYCWP Teacher-Leader and ISI Co-Facilitator, who originally posted it on her personal blog, Those Who Can. She is a high school English teacher in the Bronx and has been active with the NYCWP since she participated as a Summer Fellow in 2010. In the spring of 2014, Priscilla formed a writing group with a small number of other NYCWP teachers, with whom she meets monthly. Below, she describes some of the things she’s learned about herself as a writer and, more interestingly, herself as a teacher, through participation in such a group.
I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved with the NYCWP Invitational Summer Institute for the past five years, and exceptionally lucky in taking on the role of co-facilitator this past July. Without fail, as out wonderful month of writing, reflecting, and pot-lucking draws to a close, several participants ask me how they can maintain some of that summer magic once back in the real world of teaching and grading, with no time to devote to writing and sharing. A few years ago, I had heard from a handful of summer participants who had continued to meet as a writing group, and while I thought this was an adorable and brilliant idea, which I recommended to participants from then on, I never pursued a writing group of my own. Until this year. For the past few months, I have been participating in a cozy writing group with two other Writing Project alum, and though it is consistently challenging, it is also one of the best things I have done for myself as a writer and as a teacher. The reasons are innumerable, so here I’ll focus on just three.
1. Deadlines are the best/worst.
Unless you have gone back to graduate school since becoming a teacher (or finishing your master’s during your first two years, holla fellows!), most of your deadlines have been self-imposed for awhile now. I say “most” because there are curriculum maps and evaluation reflections and other administrator- or district-mandated deadlines, but in terms of writing, non-students generally only need answer to themselves. Writing group reintroduced writing deadlines, which come with this familiar soreness that I really did not miss but I know is good for me.
Worst first: deadlines are miserable. When we agree to them, they always feel manageable. A week, sometimes two, is plenty of time. Sometimes I tell myself I’ll put in a bit of time each day to rough out a draft or polish the corners of a revision; sometimes, I plan to set aside an evening at a coffee shop (/my living room with a mason jar of wine). More often than not, the plan falls apart. Either the time I think I have gets redistributed to cover other responsibilities, or I glower at blank pages or solid walls of first drafts and make zero progress. Occasionally, I am too exhausted to do more than feebly push open my laptop and stare at my email before falling asleep on the keyboard. Stress, doubt, cursing the clock, procrastination – all the major food groups of my productivity in college come back to me now.
Best next: I forgot all of this. I forgot the way it feels to have someone expecting a piece of writing by a certain date, regardless of my other obligations or distractions. I forgot the paralysis a deadline brings to my writing process. When my students are assigned writing, either in our class or another, I’m more equipped to support them. I understand that deadlines should be close enough to feel urgent but far enough away to allow for time management. I build in checkpoints and conferences that make space for all that freaking out that I know they’re doing.
Bonus perk: I think I’m getting better! Our most recent submission date does not evidence this, but in general, I’ve found it easier to work with our deadlines. A little bit. Sometimes. Progress?
2. Meaningful feedback must be meaningful to the writer.
Providing feedback for writers is hard, because there are so many different kinds of feedback you can offer. Most of the ELA teachers I know have gone through similar, repetitive cycles around feedback: we begin by crossing out and circling and making notes in the margins around every error, then we try to work a little smarter and focus only on a few types of errors. We make checklists, incorporate peer editing, some of us stop writing on the student work all together and use sticky notes instead. We try retelling, asking questions only, referring students back to class readings with our fingers crossed. Few teachers I know settle on one method, and I think the biggest challenge around providing feedback is that different writers want different feedback. Some writers want a draft dripping in red (or whatever color your chosen grading ink), while others respond best to retelling and questioning. Participating in a writing group is helping me realize the importance of thinking about the kind of feedback I need. Submitting a piece with the hopes that I’ll get ideas on building up tension or expanding a character, but receiving only feedback on the word choice, is beyond discouraging. It’s distracting and frustrating, and leaves me less likely to look at that piece again. But the regular process of engaging in a group has encouraged me to think about and articulate the kind of feedback I need, and to think about how I can help students have more voice in the responses I give.
3. “Finished” is a relative term.
Sometimes, I’m just done. I’ve taken a piece as far as I can possibly take it, changed perspectives, rerouted the opening scene twice, polished every line, vetted every word. Sometimes, I’ve done half that, but all the same, it’s enough. I can’t bear to look at that piece ever again, regardless of the thoughtful feedback and encouraging words I’ve received. As a writer, I now have choices: I can force myself to slog through a revision, or I can put the piece to rest and move on to something else. And as a writer, having those choices keeps me writing. If I decide not to push a revision, I open myself to more writing opportunities, and I often find myself returning to that exhausted piece after a break, a fresh take having come to me in its absence. As a student, I rarely had these choices. Doneness was decided by my teachers, for the most part, and it was based on their needs – the grades needed to be in, or they needed me to demonstrate mastery of the unit skills. As a teacher, I want these choices to be clear and accessible to my students. Penny Kittle writes beautifully on the challenges and importance of creating space for student choice in the vital Write Beside Them, and participating in a writing group has only clarified the need for my students to have more control over their writing process in the classroom. Like me, they need the freedom and the language to say, “I’m done with this for now,” if I have any hopes of them building an authentic writing life.
I know you don’t have time. I know you have nothing to write about. I know there are deadlines and meetings and grading, and that you have a family, and that you are tired. But giving yourself time to write, just a few minutes each day, is infinitely rewarding. You’ll do some of your best learning through writing. I believe this. I see it in my students, in the NYCWP summer participants, in myself. Combining that with a writing group, and giving myself accountability and structure and a community of support, is informing my teaching in hands-on, real ways. And if nothing else, it’s a great excuse for some monthly me-time!
Have you tried participating in a writing group? Or are you looking to start a writing group with other NYCWP teachers? Head on over to our Community Forum to talk about the joys and triumphs of your writing group, or to start your own!