by Danielle De Arment, NVWP TC, Mount Vernon High School
Ed. Note: This year, as we continue to celebrate our most recent Invitational Summer Institute and begin to look forward to the next, we want to pick up and continue a tradition of the Journal of the Virginia Writing Project. So, over the next few weeks, we will be publishing Voices from the Invitational Summer Institute—position papers from the newest NVWP Teacher Consultants. Position papers are a consistent feature of the ISI. The fellows write one before the Institute begins, and then they write back to themselves as the Institute ends. It is our hope that the position papers we highlight for you will represent the spirit of the 2012 class as a whole. The editorial note for this feature in Volume 27 number 4 reads, “It has become a yearly tradition for The Journal to publish position papers written by Teacher Consultants fresh out of their Summer Institutes. The voices in these papers represent the future of the Virginia Writing Project, but for many veteran TCs they may also resonate with familiar echoes from the past.” May these voices of inspired educators inspire you.
It has taken all four weeks of the Northern Virginia Writing Project’s Invitational Summer Institute for me to come to a crucial conclusion: it is equally important for my students that I present myself as a writer as it is that I present myself to them as a teacher. This message has been woven throughout my experiences here, but it only truly clicked just now—literally, twelve or so hours ago.
Sheridan Blau, whose book The Literature Workshop I had to read for ENGH 610: Proseminar on The Teaching of Literature last semester, emphasizes the benefits of showing students that we, too, struggle with difficult texts. During his presentation I heard him say what I had read in his book, that to build confidence in our students, we must show them that it is beneficial to struggle and that “confusion represents an advanced state of understanding.”
Donald Murray’s Write to Learn, which I perused this summer, presents the teacher’s writing as an example of the struggles, the good and bad moments that come with writing, and most of all, the experimentation it involves.
I have always sat down to write with my students when I give them a creative assignment in class. know that this is a “best practice” and shows that I am going through the often difficult practice of writing along with them. Sometimes I volunteered to read my response when I was asking them to do the same. One year, when a class of Creative Writing II slipped by my administration with an enrollment of six students, I became part of their writing workshop for the entire year. That was hands-down my strongest teaching moment because I was putting myself on the line just as I expected my students to do, and we were all invested in the process and trusting in our fellow writers. We wrote pieces for the Washington Post Magazine’s Valentine’s Day Contest in response to a photograph. We had a purpose, an authentic audience, and we all worked extremely hard and felt wholeheartedly proud. At that moment, I was a writer and a teacher, modeling experimentation, discipline, and excitement about writing for my students.
I read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird this summer—by read, I mean I read it and then re-read parts of it aloud to my husband and then wrote down quotes from it and thought about it as I sat down to write. I read the business out of her words. They were powerful to me because she exposes herself as flawed, as struggling, and as successful, too. I do have to say, I hope I never go on a two-day bender as a result of rejection.
Then, something happened as I was preparing my Demonstration Lesson for the group of strong teachers gathered here this summer. Since I have been out of the classroom for seven months and was forced to purge my pack-ratty classroom before I ended up with two small boxes to store in my basement, I was nervous about not having enough examples to display my students’ great accomplishments and changes. It never occurred to me that I could use examples of my writing as evidence of the improvements until Paul Rogers suggested in the debriefing meeting that since I am a writer (It makes me feel incredibly powerful to type those last four words.), I should put some of my writing into my presentation. This idea made such sense! I should present myself as one of the writers who benefited from the exercises on improving diction, avoiding cliche, and showing instead of telling! Of course, I have saved almost everything I have written ever in life, so I have no lack of material, and I have also benefited from the writing exercises I have discovered from being in the classroom for seven years and teaching creative writing for three years.
I had the breakthrough early this week, the last week of the Institute, and then, as if just to make sure I really got it, Don Gallehr, the founder of the Northern Virginia Writing Project, turns up and describes how he teaches his students about publication. He shows us rejection letters and tells us about his missteps and the tricks he’s learned in the game of publishing. Again, the message is loud and clear: be a writer and own the bits of expertise and struggles that come along with the endeavor because they are the greatest assets in writing instruction.
More than anything, my view of teaching writing is now that I have something to share because I am a writer. I am a writer.