Mapping Our Writing Identities

This year, in my role as a Literacy Consultant for our county, I don’t have my own classroom, so rather than write about what I’m doing with students, I’ll be writing about what I’m doing in professional learning. Because I always strive to structure PL to mirror classroom instruction, my hope is that the ideas I write about resonate with adult learning as well as with students. 

Over the years of working with teachers, I’ve noticed that teachers – especially secondary ELA teachers – tend to be more confident in facilitating student choice and authentic instruction in reading than they do in writing. The more I got curious about this, the more I realized that this seems to be, in part, due to the identities that teachers hold for themselves. 

When I ask, most every teacher I work with is quick to agree that yes, they see themselves as readers. But when I ask about whether they’re writers, there’s a lot more hesitation: 

  • Well, what do you mean?
  • Oh geez, who has time for that? 
  • I write in a journal, does that count? 
  • Oh, I write sometimes, but I’m not published or anything. So, no. No, I don’t think so. 

So,  I’ve decided that structuring professional learning that supports teachers with strategies they can take back to the classroom just isn’t enough. I need to also build teachers’ own efficacy and identity as a writer. 

As the school year gets underway, a goal I have for myself is to make this an undercurrent throughout all of our professional learning. In order to introduce this to teachers, I tried the following activity to get everyone thinking about themselves as writers and to start making connections to what that might mean for instruction. 

Supplies 

  • Lots of sticky notes in two different colors
  • A large wall space. This could be a dry erase board, but a word of warning: sometimes sticky notes don’t adhere very well to these, so I’ve found that a plain wall, a roll of paper, or a row of lockers can work even better. 

Facilitation

1. First, I invite participants to jot their writing memories and experiences on sticky notes with the following directions: 

  • Each individual memory or experience gets its own sticky note. 
  • Before you write each memory or experience, you need to decide how you’d categorize it. Positive memories and experiences go on one color; negative ones go on the other color. 

I explain that there is no specific target number, but they should try to get several that span throughout their lifetime until now. 

2.  As people start to get a decent pile of sticky notes finished, I ask them to bring their sticky notes up to the wall space and put them on a loose timeline. I explain that one side of the space is childhood, and the other is present-day adulthood. There is no need to get specific with years or ages, but they should order their sticky notes in a general continuum. 

IMG_6219

3. Once everyone has placed their sticky notes on the space, I ask the group to step back and make some early observations. What might they notice about their continuum? Sometimes, I ask an open-ended question, and other times, I’ve asked them to unpack their observations in a see/think/wonder protocol. Having this visual can offer some powerful observations even early in the facilitation. Some of the noticings that various groups I’ve worked with have had this fall have included: 

  • We have a lot more positive experiences in adulthood than we did when we were young.
  • Wow. There’s a lot more in adulthood than I thought there would be! 
  • Look how negative our teen years were for writing. 

Then, I ask the group to start playing with some hypotheses: 

 What might be behind these patterns? 

4. After their initial observations, I tell the groups that I’m going to read all of the sticky notes. At this point, their job is to listen and to think about what trends they may notice. This might be a continuation of their see/think/wonder, but I’ve also invited them to make observations a little more casually. 

When I do this, I start by reading all of the negative sticky notes first. I do this on purpose because I want to end the reflection in a hopeful, uplifting way. So, I read each negative sticky, starting at the youngest end of the spectrum, exactly as it was written and without commentary. Then, I give everyone a quiet minute to personally process what they heard, and I ask them to lift up any trends or patterns they may have noticed. 

Next, we repeat the same process with the positive sticky notes. I start with childhood experiences and read each straight through without pausing or offering opinions. Then, the group shares what they may have noticed in terms of trends or patterns. 

It’s not surprising that some common trends emerge no matter which building or group of teachers I’ve been working with: 

Negative

  • Too much pressure or stress
  • Too much emphasis on rules or doing it “the right way” 
  • Feeling like it was “ripped apart” in editing 

Positive

  • Having someone read it 
  • Getting positive feedback 
  • Having a say in the topic, purpose, or style

5.  Reflect. I usually ask teachers to do some initial reflecting on the patterns they found verbally through a turn and talk or think/pair/share, but then I ask them to take their reflections personally back to their notebooks. (This is worth mentioning: I’ve recently adopted the working norm that we keep notebooks for all writing-related professional learning. For many reasons. So many that this is probably a blog post all on its own, but for now, I figure you get the gist.) In their notebooks, I invite teachers to reflect on this activity. I like to keep it open-ended with a prompt like: 

What are you learning about yourself and your own writing identity? In what ways might you carry that into your classroom? 

Only the Beginning 

This is far from the end of the discussion when it comes to our own writing identities or how we build our students’ so that their positive experiences shape their writing identities. But so far, it’s been a powerful way to enter into the conversation and to start to build together a vision for how we might like to support our students’ growing writing identities. 

What patterns might you expect to see if you were to do this activity? What if you invited your students to do it? I’d love to talk with you about how we reflect upon and carry our own writing identities into our classrooms. Comment below or find me on twitter @megankortlandt 

– Megan

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