In thinking about the current trends with WAC/CAC at secondary schools, I am reminded of all the good writing that many teachers have done. Jeanette Jordan and her WAC colleagues at Glenbrook North High School in Illinois just published a manual about research-based writing across the curriculum for their faculty. At other schools teachers also collaborate with colleagues across disciplines, while some co-author works with students. Many publish their work online or in regional, national or discipline-based professional journals. In the course of a school year, most WAC/CAC people must write articles, reports, narratives on students for faculty or parents, press releases, proposals for courses, and descriptions of incidents. All of these writing projects require time of teachers who are already overloaded with daily work for their classes plus their extracurricular duties. Why would they write when it was not required? In most cases, secondary teachers are not rewarded with tenure, promotion or salary increases if they are published writers.
If we start with the premise that all teachers are teachers of writing, let's also assume that most have participated in a writing workshop themselves in preparation for using writing in their own classes. Based on these two assumptions, most teachers have had experience writing about something they know or care about, have gotten feedback from peers, and have actually revised a piece of writing. If the experience was a positive one, why not write more? In How People Learn, the authors describe action research as a vital part of adult learning for teachers. If the writing workshop experience enabled them to discover new ideas or to write about classroom teaching experiences, then why not share what they have learned? If they have an idea for a new project, why not write a draft of that piece? If they want to apply for a summer grant or a sabbatical, to propose a new course or to apply for graduate work, teachers write.
These vital reasons for writing explain why many of us write, but for others it is just the sheer pleasure of sitting down and writing by hand or more likely writing on a keyboard. After my third book was published, I put a cartoon near my monitor that shows an airline gate with the gentleman announcing, "At this time we would like to pre-board all first-class passengers and academics who have written three or more books." As I write this column, I am sitting in the total disarray of papers in my study, glancing out at the snow-filled clouds through bare trees and listening to a draft of a new CD by hammered dulcimer player Dan Landrum. For many teachers this atmosphere away from the interruption of those we love to teach allows us the luxury of reflecting on what we do and how we do it five days a week or more. Writing to learn is a vital part of our lives; we don't just apply it to our students.
Another reason that many classroom teachers write is to respond on listservs and email. Whether they go online to listen in and participate in discussions through NCTE listservs, WAC-L or WCenter, for instance, or talk with colleagues in their own or other schools through email, they are writing. And maybe this is one of the most important points. Teachers tend to have a feeling of isolation when they are trying something new or questioning what they are doing in their classroom. Nothing is more valuable than writing to another human being, getting feedback online, seeking suggestions of sources, or asking others to describe their experiences with a similar problem.
One of my favorite ways of writing is through email dialogues or collaborative writing. What fun it is to send the beginning of an idea to a trusted peer and get feedback that begins a dialogue that leads to a study, experimental research project or conference proposal! Several of my colleagues have mentioned ideas that I have taken back to the writing center and put in the form of a question of interest and hypothesis to email to them. One car pool buddy a few years ago explained how important writing was in his computer science class as I drove around the hairpin curves at the top of the W Road. By the time we got to school, he was excited about his whole idea. I turned on my computer in the writing center and immediately typed him an email message stating exactly what he had said to me. "Is this what you said this morning?" I asked. "If so, could you elaborate a bit on it or set me straight?" After a few email exchanges, he had a publishable article.
In working on a recent essay for publication, I realized that the audience for the essay would be college students. I immediately sent a draft to a former student who is a sophomore at Vanderbilt. Matt gave me just the perspective I needed for the essay, and he did it in a style of a colleague not a student. His comments demonstrated his knowledge, his understanding of the audience, and his personal investment in the task. Needless to say, Matt is also mentioned for his help, and the essay is a much better piece because I wrote to him and got his input.
A colleague and I are collaborating on another piece for submission to The Science Teacher. If we did not collaborate, the piece would probably never get to the submission stage, let alone publication. Through email attachments of drafts and messages reminding each other of due dates and asking questions that need to be answered within the essay, we have had an opportunity to grow as teachers and writers.
The other day I used invisible writing on the computer to help a student break the habit of editing each sentence of any piece of writing as he wrote it. I remembered reading an article by Stephen Marcus and Sheridan Blau, entitled "Not Seeing is Relieving: Invisible Writing with a Computer," in a 1983 issue of Educational Technology. Now almost twenty years later, I was applying the same technique I had previously used to relieve the anxieties of teachers using computers for the first time, and it worked. I had to share my discovery of an old dog relearning a trick with technology for a different purpose, so I wrote about it.
Don't get me wrong; writing for publication is pretty risky business, especially for people who spend their time responding to the writing of others. Rejection is the worst that can happen, but most teachers who have published will speak of the value of comments they have gotten in responses from editors. It is just another learning experience.
As I reread this column, I am reminded that teachers do not or should not teach in isolation. Those who get excited about successes with using writing in their classroom, as well as those who have taken risks and those who have failed, need to share those experiences with colleagues and pre-service teachers alike. By taking the time to write, one ponders the possibilities, considers alternatives, and discovers the learning experience through writing to an audience of self or another. Whether it takes the form of email, discussion/response, writing for publication, or a proposal for further study; writing allows teachers to experience and share both the joys and pains of seeing their ideas in print or online. With a little time and some encouragement, teachers and students can gain a great deal from the experience. That's why teachers write.
Bransford, John D., Ann L. Brown, and Rodney R. Cocking, eds. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Marcus, Stephen and Sheridan Blau. (1983, April). Not seeing is relieving: Invisible writing with a computer. Educational Technology, 12-15.
Publication Information: Childers, Pamela B. (2002). WAC/CAC in secondary schools: Taking risks across the curriculum. Academic.Writing, http://wac.colostate.edu/aw/secondary/column6.htm
Publication Date: November 1, 2002