Thursday, July 22, 2010

Guest Blog: How can reflective writing make you a better reader?

During my fist year as a high school English teacher in the Midwest, I found reasons every day to question my decision. These challenges became a part of the reason I now love the job, but finding the right tool to overcome the challenge was not something prescribed in my college curriculum (at least not explicitly). One of the most unique challenges came not from the students, but from my own experiences as a reader. How was I supposed to keep up with all the reading? I had books to teach I had not read in years (or not at all), professional development texts being passed to me, and personal books I was dying to escape to--who had the time to take it all in?

I started to think back to the times in college when I was most successful during literature classes. Looking for patterns, scribblings, or whatever clues I could find, I found myself entrenched in old black and white bound journals of class notes. The pressures had changed since then; now I was on the other side of the desk. How could I respond differently and enact a new sense of literary authority while still being approachable? The question burned within me while I thumbed through round-cornered pages.

Eventually I realized the constant I wasn't giving enough credit to, as a college reader, was writing. I wrote continually before, during, and after I read something for class. Any time I took in new information I had to process my thoughts, prior knowledge, and questions. Ah-ha! I wasn't doing enough writing as a teacher; that has to be something helpful I'm missing. I stopped reading and searching right then and started writing something useful to solving my issue, a question:

How can reflective writing make you a better reader?

As an English teacher, I am always looking for more personal ways to plug myself into a new text. The most successful way to work within a piece of literature, be it a first read or a well-worn favorite, is to look in the mirror. I like to think about myself as a young boy on an adventure like Huckleberry Finn, imagine myself living in a distant and oppressive future like Winston Smith in "1984," or even put myself in the shoes of a woman contemplating the meaning and impact of death like Emily Dickinson.

Because I could not stop to write, no words would come to me.

I made a pact with myself to write--to blog, more specifically--as regularly as possible. My goal was every week during the year I would write something about my practice in the classroom, texts I was exploring, and issues that were coming up within my school community. I made an arbitrary word-length which I didn't end up sticking too very long, but it helped me get started. My posts ended up ranging from 300-1000 words each week and if I missed a week I double posted the next.

Continuity. That was the answer to my question about reflective writing. It started to surface after a few weeks in a row of doing public writing. I wasn't solving the mysteries of the universe, or even of my classroom, in each post, but I was starting to see a few threads unravel related to who I was as a teacher, reader, and writer.

More than the personal philosophical benefits writing was providing me as a reading teacher, I was starting to feel more nimble when discussing language arts with my students. I felt like the football coach who, after dropping a few pounds, was running laps on his players' heels. My own practice as a writer was affecting my authority with students; they could perceive that I was more in tune with S.E. Hinton when I knew just exactly what character to suggest they profile for their project.

Before I started using writing to build upon my own understanding of teaching literature and reading, I was full of haste but going nowhere. Now, I can afford to take a more Dickenson-like tempo with my classes:

I slowly teach, I know no haste.

And I do put my pen

into labor, and leisure too

for I know I'm learning.

And now the first line of my poem is something a bit brighter. With my new perspective I can say comfortably, I don't think Emily would mind my riffing on her already great words:

Because I Have to Stop to Write,

The World Kindly Stops for Me.


Steve J. Moore heads his high school's reading department and teaches literacy skills to incoming freshman. His blog is an account of his first year as a teacher, and is being published in a series through the Missouri State Teachers Association's publication Teacher U. Full of energy, optimism, and frankness, Moore's posts mean to uplift and encourage anyone with a stake in education.


Shireen Richardson said...

Thank you for your inspirational message - just what I needed to hear!

Justin Stortz said...

Excellent thoughts! The power of writing to clarify thoughts and focus energy is amazing. You have inspired me to make sure I not only finish To Kill a Mockingbird and 1984 before the start of the new school year, but to also write some reflections on them.

My personal blogging goal as a teacher is also going to be once a week.

Thank for sharing!

- @newfirewithin

Anonymous said...

I teach multi-levels of English, from 6th through 12th grade and I often feel overwhelmed with the reading aspect of my job. Thanks for helping me to think about this in a new way. I love to write and keep a daily journal but I am intrigued by the idea of journaling about my reading for my classes. I will definitely try it. I will also continue to consider myself blessed to be able to do the thing I love the most - read great books and share them with others - as a way to make a living!