Who > What

A few weeks ago, Rebekah and Allison reached out to the Moving Writers crew to coordinate our schedules and topics for this school year. I wanted to respond, but I was feeling more than a little stuck. I had two ideas, but they both felt pretty lame. I was swimming in doubt, so I reached out with what was probably a pretty whiny email. When I opened their response, I had to laugh because they totally teacher’d me. (In the best possible way, I mean.) They said: 

“Listen, Rebekah and I will do just about anything to NOT lose you. But we want you to enjoy this. So you can write as infrequently as you’d like and about anything you’d like. What do you think?”

I recognized what a great teacher move it was, and, wouldn’t you know it, within a day or so, I was unstuck. They didn’t comment on either of the ideas that I’d pitched, and they didn’t prompt me with any new ideas, but they got me brainstorming again.  What made their email such a great example of a writing teacher response was that they valued me before my writing. Or, perhaps because being married to a math teacher for so long has rubbed off on me: 

Who > What 

When I couldn’t think of an idea that seemed like the right fit, I started spiraling. I wondered if my ideas were just no good any more and I should step away from the blog. I imagine this is the same feeling my students had when I’d sit down to confer with them and they’d defeatedly tell me they had nothing to write about. Being stuck in brainstorming feels an awful lot like not having anything worthwhile to say, which can easily lead to feeling a lot of doubt around a writing identity. 

When Rebekah and Allison replied, they made me feel first and foremost like they cared about me. Knowing that they value who I am gave me confidence that they valued what I have to say, which, I have to imagine, moved my brain’s energy away from being worried about belonging to thinking about ideas. 

Rebekah and Allison’s email seemed effortless and masterful, but it’s not something that always comes naturally to writing teachers. In my work as a literacy consultant with an Intermediate School District, I support local public school districts. (It’s a no-cost service to the districts, and I’m a public school employee.) One of the most complex and important parts of my job is helping to connect all of the different initiatives that a given building or district is working on. Districts often have separate improvement goals or PD sessions related to SEL, equity, and content area instruction. While keeping these compartmentalized can have the unfortunate side effect of giving teachers initiative whiplash, it also misses out on getting to the heart of the matter of centering students. In this case, if I was supporting teachers with brainstorming for writing ideas as a content support, it would be important for me to draw on teachers’ learning around SEL and equity to think about first showing students that they belong, that they’re valued, and that their ideas are valued. In this way, valuing the who over the what isn’t something that’s just limited to “SEL time,” it’s woven throughout the fabric of the class. 

Who is greater than what when it comes to valuing writers, and it’s true when it comes to audiences for assignments, too. Even the most creative idea for an assignment can fall flat if it isn’t driven by who will be reading the writing once it’s published. 

To illustrate this, I keep going back to my experience as an emergent blogger. Several years back, when I first started blogging for Moving Writers, I was also writing for a local organization. The local group paid a small stipend for each post, while Moving Writers is purely voluntary without any compensation. While the money from the local group was nice, the more important distinction for me was that Moving Writers had a much bigger audience. When I submitted a post, I knew people were reading it. They’d react on social media, and I connected with an incredible community of educators who wanted to talk about the ideas we were trying. When juggling being a teacher, a mom, and a writer got to be too much, guess which deadlines I still prioritized more often? It wasn’t the one with the contract and the stipend; it was the one with the audience and community. Again, who was greater than what. 

In order for me to kickstart my blogging ideas this year,  I needed to know that I was valued and that I belonged to a community that wanted to hear what I have to say. I think these principles of Who > What that I was reminded of through my own writing practice also hold true for teachers in a learning community and for student writers in a classroom. 

That leads me to my plans for this year. In Beyond Literary Analysis, Allison and Rebekah refer to writing “in the wild” to mean the authentic writing you find outside of the walls of a classroom. Throughout my posts, I’ll reflect on my own experiences with writing “in the wild” and how that affects my practice as an educator and a person who supports educators. I’m not sure how well it will go, but I suspect maybe that’s part of the point.  

When have you seen Who > What in your own writing practice or instruction? What kind of writing “in the wild” are you up to these days? I’d love to connect more with you! You can get a taste for some of my professional writing “in the wild” here at Moving Writers and through ASCD in articles like this and in Principal Labs: Strengthening Instructional Leadership Through Shared Learning. You can also find me on Twitter @megankortlandt.

– Megan 

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