The purposeful teaching of writing that led to and then sprang from the formation of the National Writing Project (NWP) and its affiliated sites has always emphasized the importance of a community of writers.
And while the summer institutes offered through NWP sites—where I was saved as a writing teacher and then fortunate to be a co-lead instructor for two summers years later—create over several weeks for teachers writing workshop experiences that include forming communities of writing teachers, I fear that in the high-stakes environment of most K-12 public schools and then in the departmentalized environments of higher education the existence of those communities of writing teachers are rare, if not entirely absent.
I entered full-time teaching in the fall of 1984 as a beginning teacher and want-to-be writer. On that first day, I saw my job as a public school English teacher primarily focusing on the teaching of writing.
While my students over the next 18 years would be quick to admit I had high expectations, possibly too high, for them—demanding a great deal of writing as well as significant growth as writers and thinkers—I also had high expectations for me as a writing teacher.
Every day, I feared I was doing that work less effectively than I could, and I was constantly evolving, growing, changing—notably after attending the Spartanburg Writing Project (SWP) summer institute.
Several years after I entered higher education as a teacher educator, my university moved to a first year seminar format, opening the door for professors from any discipline to teach first-year writing—but the university failed to consider that the teaching of writing is a complex skill set, not something just anyone can do because she/he has an advanced degree.
Just shy of a decade into the first year seminar commitment, then, the university has made curricular changes (including requiring one additional upper-level writing course), and I am currently a part of the first Faculty Writing Fellows (FWF) program that includes professors from English, Education, Psychology, Biology, Computer Science, Philosophy, Sociology, and History.
This year-long faculty seminar has allowed us to spend our time thinking deeply about the challenges of teaching writing at the university level.
The faculty members in this seminar have a wide range of experiences and backgrounds in teaching writing, and that diversity has significantly opened my eyes wider to the challenges of teaching writing.
Since I am working my way into the fourth decade as a teacher of writing, I have a much different perspective than early-career professors in disciplines such as psychology or computer science.
When I discuss my strategies for reading like a writer where I highlight the rhetorical and aesthetic aspects of writing, professors from philosophy or biology, for example, say “I can’t do that” or “I don’t do that.”
From these exchanges, then, we begin to discuss how professors can and do address first-year writing differently—but that those differences are not a problem because no writing teacher can accomplish everything in one writing course.
To paraphrase Thoreau, a writing teacher is not charged with doing everything, but something. As John Warner has explained, “I do my best to help students succeed for the future writing occasions they’ll confront in college and beyond, but the truth is, I cannot properly prepare them for what’s coming.”
And thus, we have begun to stress among our faculty that any one writing course is not an inoculation that will cure writing ills. In fact, we are working hard to dissuade professors of deficit views about students, grammar, writing, and such.
Just as any writer is always a writer-in-progress, all teachers of writing are writing-teachers-in-progress.
As a writer and writing teacher, I am still learning, and here are some of the lessons I have begun to see during our FWF experience:
- Regardless of background or level of experience, everyone teaching writing needs purposeful preparation for writing instruction.
- To teach writing, we must all be willing to investigate our attitudes about language as well as our own experiences as both student writers and writers in our disciplines.
- We should form a community of writers for our students, but our schools must provide for all teachers of writing that same ongoing community of writing teachers.
- Writing is a complex skill that can and should be taught at all levels of formal education with the full recognition that no one can ever be finished learning to write.
- Teaching writing is a discipline itself, a field rich in evidence but mostly defined by the perpetual problems of how to foster writers in hundreds of different writing situations. Each writing student is a new and unique challenge, not a flawed or incomplete student to be “fixed.”
- The pursuits of writing and teaching writing are greatly enhanced by equal parts passion and humility.
Finally, what has been most rewarding about the FWF experience and our community of writing teachers is that I am chomping at the bit for my fall 2016 first-year writing courses where for the 35th year, I will be doing some things differently, and I trust, better.