Harnessing the Power of a Teacher’s Pen

Kelly Boswell argues that teachers should share their creative writing processes to benefit their students

I recently asked a group of teachers to reflect on their own experiences as student writers. I asked them to cast their minds back to the time when they were students and recall the kinds of feedback they received about their writing.

Here are a few of their comments:
• “I would say throughout middle and high school, I only received negative feedback. It was usually in summative form, as the final grade was already recorded, and I had no chance to go back and revise anything.”
• “In middle school, I had to write reports, and I remember being so terrified because I was afraid of doing them wrong. I didn’t know how to write a report and wasn’t taught how.”
• “The only feedback I can remember was that I overused commas and was too wordy. I needed to get to the point.”
• “I remember getting marks all over my work fixing my grammar, spelling, and handwriting.”

What were your experiences as a student writer? Can you relate to any of the comments above? Perhaps some of us can remember positive or encouraging feedback from a writing teacher, but I predict that many of us have memories of turning in a piece of writing only to have it mercilessly subjected to the teacher’s red pen before it was handed back to us.

A colleague once told me that she has a theory about why this kind of thing happens in writing classrooms. Her theory is that when teachers graduate from college and receive their teaching licenses, they also receive pairs of “red-pen eyes.” These “eyes” give teachers the ability to look at a piece of student writing and — in a magical instant — see all of the mistakes. At this point, the teacher’s pen begins writing — adding editing marks to denote correct punctuation or scribbling comments in the margin such as “check your spelling” or “too vague” or “show, don’t tell!”

As writing teachers, we wield pens with enormous power. Our pens have the power to crush a writer or lift a writer, to nudge a writer forward in her process or to create a student who joins the countless number of potential writers who don’t want to write. “Genuine criticism, the type that leaves an indelible mark on you as a writer, also leaves an existential imprint on you as a person,” remarked John Kaag in the New York Times last year.

As I said, our pens have enormous power.

Repurpose Your Pen
I often wonder what would happen if we repurposed our “teacher pens” and put them to a more productive use. What if we could shift the narrative so that our students actually looked forward to seeing our pens in action? What if we used the power of our pens not to make marks on students’ papers but rather to craft pieces of writing in front of our students? What if our pens could be used to show them how a proficient writer thinks and what a proficient writer does? What if we gave students a window into our thinking and allowed them to see the reality and messiness of our own writing processes? In other words, what would happen if we used our teacher pens to model?

If you think about it, modeling plays an important role in how the human brain learns almost anything. Infants and toddlers watch their caregivers walk, talk, and eat with spoons. Piano students notice and note the way the instructor’s hands are placed on the keys when playing scales. Tennis players watch and listen as the coach demonstrates how to serve the ball. Student teachers observe a master teacher before teaching lessons on their own.

Collins, Brown, and Newman (1989) call this cognitive apprenticeship. Through this apprenticeship, processes that are usually carried out internally (i.e., reading, playing piano, writing, etc.) are externalized so the learner can see how an expert completes the task.

Modeling is said to be one of the most effective of all teaching strategies (Pearson and Fielding, 1991). And yet, as teachers, we often neglect this powerful instructional tool. We showcase mentor texts and examine what other authors do in their writing, but we seldom demonstrate our own thinking, planning, decision making, and revising. Donald Graves (2013), a longtime advocate for modeled writing, said, “Students can go a lifetime and never see another person write, much less show them how to write. Yet it would be unheard of for an artist not to show her students how to use oils by painting on her own canvas, or for a ceramist not to demonstrate how to throw clay on a wheel and shape the material himself.”

I believe there is immense power in using our pens to give students a peek into the mind and processes of another writer. In fact, I believe that if we took five to ten minutes every day to think and write ourselves before asking students to write, it could transform the writing classroom.

Modeling our own thinking and writing strengthens students’ knowledge of:

• the vocabulary that writers use to talk about their writing and themselves as writers

• the writing process

• writing behaviors

• story structures

• the varieties and structures of text types

• how writing helps us and enriches our everyday life

The truth is, for us as writing teachers, it’s imperative that we write. Think about it. If you want your child to learn to ski, chances are you find an instructor who… skis. Likewise, there is a relatively good chance that your child’s piano teacher actually plays the piano. Learning to write (like learning to ski or play piano) happens best when someone comes alongside us and shows us how it’s done.

Make Your Thinking Transparent
Thinking aloud is one of the cornerstone characteristics of modeled writing that sets it apart from other kinds of writing instruction. If we don’t make our thinking visible for our students, they are simply watching our pens move over paper. There’s no power. The transformational power of our pens — of modeling — exists in the language we use as we write.

When I think and write in front of students, I often say: I am going to be thinking out loud as I write, because I want to show you how writers think. While I’m thinking aloud, listen and observe. Notice what I do as I think and write.

Here are some examples of the think-aloud language I use when I model:
• I’m thinking I need to add some pizazz to this paragraph. There’s nothing interesting here to catch my reader’s attention. Watch me as I think about adding some details to make this paragraph come to life.

• As I reread my lead, I’m thinking I want to revise it. I’m wondering what it would do for my piece if I started with a question. Watch me as I experiment with a few different leads.

• I’m wondering if this section is clear. As I reread this, I think my reader may be confused about the order in which these events occurred. I’m going to rework this section and see if I can make it more organized and clear. Watch me as I do that.

• I’ve collected some fascinating facts about how to stay safe during a tornado. When I collected the facts, I simply jotted down words and phrases. Now I’m going to take those words and phrases and turn them into sentences to include in my piece. Watch me as I think about these words and phrases and decide how to put them together into rich and interesting sentences.

After I have thought out loud and have crafted a few sentences, I often invite students to talk with a partner and reflect on what they just observed. For example, I might say: Did you see what I did? Did you see how I tried a few different leads? Did you notice how I jotted them down and then read them aloud to see how they sounded? Did you see how I thought about my reader and chose a lead that might hook my reader and make him want to keep reading?

When we think aloud, we show our students how writing begins with a germ of an idea in the writer’s mind and ends up on the page. When we make our own thinking transparent, we not only demystify the writing process, we help students develop language to talk about their writing.

Purposeful and Meaningful Feedback
In my own teaching, I found that one of the main benefits of making my own thinking and writing transparent was that it forced me to engage in writing — with all of its trials and triumphs — and this became enormously valuable when I provided feedback to my student writers. The atmosphere of the writing conference became more relaxed, because I wasn’t “the Teacher of Writing” swooping down to mark up their work, but rather, I was simply one writer talking to another writer. Because I was engaging in writing myself, I was able to say things such as: I had a hard time coming up with a conclusion for my piece too. Would you like to hear what helped me? Or: One thing that helped me make my writing more interesting was to speak directly to the reader. Can I show you how I did that?

Research has consistently found that teachers who engage in writing experiences themselves can connect more authentically with students during the writing process (Cremin, 2006; Kaplan, 2008). In other words, when you make your own thinking and writing transparent — when you write in front of your students — your advice becomes more credible and your feedback has more value because you are in the trenches too — you are doing the hard work of writing right along with your students. You, as the teacher, are viewed as one writer in a community of writers, and that helps guide and temper the feedback you provide.

In short, modeling helps you to harness the power of your pen and use your power for good.

Cremin, Teresa. “Creativity, Uncertainty and Discomfort: Teachers as Writers.” Cambridge Journal of Education, 2006, 415-33.
Collins, Allan, John Seely Brown, and Susan E. Newman. Cognitive Apprenticeship: Teaching the Craft of Reading, Writing and Mathematics. Cambridge, MA: Bolt Beranek and Newman, 1989.
Kaag, John. “The Perfect Essay.” The New York Times, May 15, 2014, Opinion sec. Accessed Aug. 8, 2014. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/05/05/the-perfect-essay/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_php=true&_type=blogs&_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=2&.
Kaplan, Avi. “Clarifying Metacognition, Self-Regulation, and Self-Regulated Learning: What’s the Purpose?” Educational Psychology Review, 2008, 477-84.
Newkirk, Thomas and Penny Kittle, editors. Children Want to Write: Donald Graves and the revolution in children’s writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2013.
Pearson, P. D., and L. Fielding. “Comprehension Instruction.” In Handbook of Reading Research, Vol. 2, edited by R. Barr, M. L. Kamil, P. B. Mosenthal, and P. D. Pearson. White Plains, NY: Longman, 1991, 815-860.

Kelly Boswell has many years of experience in education as a classroom teacher, literacy coach, and district literacy specialist. She is the coauthor of Solutions for Reading Comprehension and Crafting Nonfiction and has recently published Write This Way: How Modeling Transforms the Writing Classroom (Capstone Professional, 2015).