School vacation has arrived, bringing with it the promise of time—for reading, relaxing, and recharging. But, as educators know so well, it’s also the season for tackling professional activities and aspirations put on hold during the busy school year. If putting pen to paper or honing your writing skills is on your to-do list, Kate Messner’s 59 Reasons to Write: Mini-Lessons, Prompts, and Inspiration for Teachers (Stenhouse, 2015) offers an encouraging nudge. In 2012, Messner, a successful fiction and nonfiction writer for kids and young teens, organized Teachers Write, a free online writing workshop for teachers and librarians. The “virtual summer writing camp” was a hit, attracting many more participants than anticipated and becoming an annual tradition.
59 Reasons to Write grew out of that collaborative experience and contains a well-organized compilation of warm-up exercises to get the creative juices flowing, contributed by author Jo Knowles, advice from professional authors and workshop members, and writing lessons with assignments that address voice, setting, characters, poetry, nonfiction, writer’s block, and more. Designed as a framework for crafting a writing workshop with colleagues or for individuals writing on their own, there’s enough material here to motivate beginners and to boost the more experienced. As Teachers Write enters its fourth summer, we contacted Messner to ask her a few questions about writing and teaching.
Can you tell us about your journey from middle school English teacher to full-time writer—did you always write?
I’ve written since I was a kid, so I’ve always loved creating stories and poems (research papers, too…I was geeky that way!). I always wrote while I was teaching middle school English, too, but I’d largely kept my personal writing to myself until around 2001, when I started working on a historical novel set on Lake Champlain. I brought that project into the classroom, shared my messy drafts with my students, and was amazed at the difference that made in how I was able to work with them on their own writing.
I pretty much juggled two careers for several years before it became too overwhelming and I chose to leave the classroom to write full time. It was a difficult decision and one I don’t think I would have been able to make if I didn’t still get to spend so much of my writing life teaching, through school visits and writing workshops with both kids and their teachers.
59 Reasons to Write encourages teachers to make time for writing. Why is that important?
A shocking number of teachers are afraid to write. Facing that fear and working on the craft of writing accomplishes a few things. First, it puts the teacher in the role of student and makes it easier to see what works and what doesn’t when it comes to growth in writing. Second, it creates a tremendous amount of empathy on the part of teachers who work with young writers. Remembering how scary it can be to write something – and share it – is eye opening.
A major benefit (and appeal) of Teachers Write is the opportunity to become a member of a supportive community of fellow writers. What’s the best part of becoming a member? The most difficult?
From what I’ve heard [from participants], what they value most is the opportunity to come together with passionate, like-minded educators for professional development that’s flexible and engaging, as well as directly relevant to their work in the classroom. Teachers Write really is a community, and I see teacher-writers who have become friends and far-away colleagues collaborating via Facebook and Twitter all the time—not just during our weeks of summer writing.
The hardest part is making the commitment. Tons of people say they want to write, but not everyone makes the time or musters the courage to do it.
Getting and giving feedback play important roles in developing a writer’s skills. What advice would you give teachers about how to use feedback with young writers?
I think it’s important that young writers have the opportunity to give and receive authentic feedback on their writing—long before it’s time to turn in a final draft. That means more than a teacher’s comments on the paper in pen. It means having time for conferencing, both with the teacher and with peer writers. And it’s best if that’s done after students have had direct instruction in how to be a good critique partner. Good writing buddies don’t swoop in and fix spelling errors. They praise the positive so their partners know what’s working. They ask thoughtful questions like “Have you thought about doing it this way?” or “What do you want a reader to take away from this part?”
I’m fascinated by the idea of “world building” in writing. Writers are obviously building worlds when they’re creating fantasy, but how about when they’re researching a particular period in history?
Well, of course—but in the case of historical fiction, the world is already built by the historical record, so it’s not world building so much as researching and including details that bring that world to life. In fantasy and science fiction, though, it’s really up to the writer to craft the world itself – and that world has to be every bit as realized as one that’s part of our history. Fictional words need governments and social hierarchies, religions, environments, laws, punishments, weather…you name it. It’s a fascinating process for any kind of writing, really.
You’re about to start your fourth summer of Teachers Write. What lies ahead?
This summer, we’ve focused on a core of four weeks, which will allow us to have a more focused program, I think. In the past, we’ve had lots of people dropping off in August when it’s time to get ready for school again, so I think wrapping up earlier in the month will help keep the program strong through the end. Also, we’ve focused on having more diverse voices this summer, so participants can expect a wide variety of lessons from authors of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, and talented writers from many different backgrounds. I’m excited!
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