I stood in front of the classroom, my hand and the marker inside of it half-raised towards the whiteboard, and suddenly realized I’d been staring at a circle with the word “Spring” inside of it for a long time. It was like that actor’s nightmare you always hear about, the dream of being on-stage naked and having forgotten your lines, and even though I was fully clothed, this somehow seemed worse. There were no lines to forget.
This was my first experience with modeling: showing my writing students how to go through the process of writing by writing myself, in front of them. I’ve always been keenly aware and observant of my own writing process: my shelves are crowded with notebooks I’ve saved to save the process of writing each poem and essay from my first scribbled notes – often just a phrase or two (Grey Gardens and fake engagement rings? Elephant baseball dream?) – to first drafts scribbled over with editing notes (too snooty? Darling, I think you’ve got to kill this darling). I even, for a while, kept a notebook to track writing sessions. However, this was a private and personal archeology; the idea of going through the process in front of my students terrified me.
What would I do when I made mistakes, which I knew I’d inevitably make, when I came to the pauses and problems which characterize any writer’s process? I knew, somehow, that in order to be a better teacher of writing, I needed to be willing to bare my writing process to my students.
I started my fight against my writer’s block, slowly writing another word next to “Spring” – tree – then circling it, then watching the board as other words circled around it – leaf, flower, pollen, bee. Soon, the whiteboard filled with circles, and my students not only saw how to create a cluster diagram for pre-writing, but also how to move past a writer’s block.
After this, I started modeling in my creative writing classes, too, trying my hand at our “morning warm-up” exercises along with my students and reading what I’d written aloud when we shared our responses. I realized that modeling was essential in a writing classroom, perhaps not so much because it showed students how they should write as because it showed students that they could write, that snares and snags and stand-stills were part of every writer’s process – and that they could overcome them.
p class=”MsoNormal”>Teaching writing, particularly creative writing, can be particularly difficult because it often means challenging students to push past their own expectations. There are no tests or universally-accepted answers, and there is no such thing as perfect. If I as a teacher can show them how I deal with this and other problems which pop up when I write, students can see that writing may be a challenge, but it’s a challenge they have the power to overcome – a reminder welcome in the lives of any student, teacher, or writer.