Writing in front of them

It’s not like I hadn’t planned my lesson. I had. 15 minutes of reading – while I conferenced quietly with students – followed by a quickwrite about memories from school. Then I would “write in front of them” to show them how to start crafting a scene. I’d chosen Alexie’s “Indian Education” as a mentor text and brainstormed some memories the night before. I had a few in mind and was ready to go.

Only here I was, sitting in front of 25 Grade 12 students and my writing was terrible. I had modeled how to find a moment – I thought of early memories and jotted them down but rejected them as too vague – then landed on a high school memory of an encounter with my daunting freshman English teacher.

I’d known before the class that I would probably end up writing about her, so I had details in mind. But they didn’t come together. At all. I started a sentence and abandoned it, explaining why. I narrated as I re-thought my entry point and pushed through the lurching prose to at least get a full idea down. I talked about trying to add some detail, but every detail felt forced and flat. I paused and acknowledged my problem out loud: “So I’m stuck and this doesn’t feel good to me. I think I’ll back up and think about what I might be trying to show with this scene. Why am I writing this?”

And suddenly, I was mortified. Not only could I not get this scene on paper but I realized I was wrestling with my own understanding of who I was in high school. I felt naked in front of my students’ curious eyes: Was I the nerd who studied for hours? The kind of kid who got sick on the day of the test? Who spoke up to teachers? Who stood up for her friends? This stupid scene – this tiny thorn of a memory from over 30 years ago – was too small and too complex and too big and too flat to possibly write, and certainly not as people watched me.

Defeated, I stopped. “I can’t make it work,” I admitted. “I’m realizing that I don’t know what I’m trying to do in this scene. I don’t know who I was in that moment, and I feel like I’m revealing way more of myself to you than I meant to – I mean, was I really this nerdy and this outspoken and this dumb? It’s unsettling – I’m unsettled. Why don’t you start your scenes while I see what I can do here?”

As students opened their notebooks, I stared at my own work, distressed. So much for “writing in front of them.” So much for “teacher as model.” I heaved a sigh and looked up. One girl – front and center, whip smart and unabashedly vocal – looked back and smiled ruefully at me. Then she dove into her notebook, pen moving unwaveringly across the paper. 

And I went back to writing, too.

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30 thoughts on “Writing in front of them

  1. What you did model was REAL! Not in from a guide book or curriculum but from you. You honestly modeled what it feels like to struggle as a writer, as a teacher, as a person. You were incredibly brave to narrate as much as you did and then to walk away (for now). We all take a chance when we write in front of others. It takes one brave teacher to do what you did! Yay you, Amanda!

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    1. I agree. Your students will remember this moment. I wonder how often they see their teacher struggle. You modeled how to keep going, even when it gets hard…and it will get hard! I agree with Dawn…a moment to celebrate for sure!

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    2. I told them today that I’m back at it. There’s a story in there, I just know it. My poor students are writing more than they ever have in an English class, so I think it didn’t hurt for them to see that I know it’s hard.

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  2. This is so hard for me to do in front of my students. I want to be a model of success, not failure, even though failure is more of a part of writing than success is. Your vulnerability in front of them meant more than you know.

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    1. It really does come down to my desire to look “good” in front of them. It’s one thing to say I am learning next to them & another thing to actually give up being the expert all the time…

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  3. Toward the end I started thinking: You have given your students a wonderful school moment about which they can write a grade 12 memory.

    I’ve used the Alexie piece as a mentor text in both English and speech. I wonder what would happen if you modeled your prewriting process first.

    I also think you did something important for students in this lesson. It’s okay to have these struggles in front of students, even though we’re mortified by our own feelings of inadequacy.

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    1. Hahaha – I’m imagining one of them telling this story a few years from now when they are in their own classroom. I really thought I was done worrying about being inadequate as a teacher – turns out there are always new ways to learn humility. Sigh.

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  4. I believe it was Kelly Gallagher who said that students gain more from seeing us struggle than they do when it looks easy (for the struggle really is real). Donald Graves said many kids never see an adult writing in front of them in their academic career. So — what a gift you’ve given them! Empowerment! Furthermore, if a way to revise comes to you, then you have just more of the REAL process to share which is incredibly valuable. A similar experience has happened to me and the students – third graders – came to my rescue by saying “Oh, you could do this or this …” and I did and IT WORKED. I feel like that moment was one of the best in all my modeling-writing moments. Writing is all about the thinking. I really enjoyed this post. You always strive – ALWAYS – for what is best an most impactful for the kids. The moments will be no less. 🙂

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    1. I’d forgotten that Donald Graves quote. What I’m asking these almost-adults to do is new and different and hard. They were expecting a class where they didn’t have to DO so much. Watching me struggle didn’t hurt them – only my own ego. And I may take a cue from you & see if they can help me once I’ve got the scene a little bit more under control… thanks for your encouraging words!

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  5. This is really writing! Raw and unplanned. Maybe the writing didn’t come out as you planned, but you showed the struggle that comes from trying to write an emotional piece. Ideas don’t magically appear, and it’s good for them to see this.

    I try not to think about my high school self too much. 🙂

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    1. Seriously. Who wants to think about their high school self? I’m not even sure who I was anymore. It’s the oddest feeling. At any rate, they know now that I will share of myself in the way that I am asking them to share. I only hope that their comments amongst themselves are as kind as my comments on their written work.

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  6. I love the imagery of nakedness and this: “This stupid scene – this tiny thorn of a memory from over 30 years ago – was too small and too complex and too big and too flat to possibly write, “
    Those thorns still poke us 30 years on but this scene sounds like the type of learning we can’t prepare for; it happens in the teachable moment. You’re a joy and a mentor to many!

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  7. Wow, I think it is actually a wonderful moment you shared with your students. Vulnerability is so important, and I think it is great that the kids saw that struggle. So often I think they believe it’s easy for others, and get frustrated when they get stuck, fearing they are the only ones who do.

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    1. Thank you! I don’t know that I *ever* saw someone struggle to write while I was in school; hopefully seeing me actually work to create something will help them have more belief in themselves in the long run.

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  8. Awwnnn… I hear there’s nothing like writer’s block so how do I explain that I was in your shoes abt 24 hours ago… Blank and stuck… But as creative intellects, we always find a way around it.. Thank goodness! And your kids? I’m sure they learnt what it truly is; that being a writer is not all roses and daises! You’re just the perfect model👏

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  9. how wonderful of you to share.
    I recall demonstrting or failing to demonstrate diagnostic skills in front of medical students in my career.
    Humbling yet probably more educational when handled as you did realistically and honestly than it would have been if you had been succesful in your preconceivied goals

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  10. I agree with others that your honesty with your students about your struggles created a profound learning experience. What a rare and valuable opportunity for them to gain insight into the messy, vulnerable part of the writing process. I love how you ended by connecting eyes with another writer in your class.

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    1. That moment of solidarity – like she knew that I was really feeling it & she was right there with me – that was everything. I’m glad I’m not in high school anymore, but – oh! – how amazing my students are.

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