When I agreed to present at the Summer Institute, Ruth told me that the theme for this year was COMMIT. I smiled. Ruth is a big part of my commitment to writing. So are so many friends: Colby, Tony, Cindy, Donalyn, and on, and on, and on. See, years ago, I never wrote. I might crank out a draft of what my students were writing, but the operative word there was might. It was my dirty secret, a Language Arts teacher who didn’t write. I read, of course, voraciously, and had since I was a kid, yet writing was my albatross. I knew why, of course, like many students I had become convinced I was terrible in writing through well meaning teachers. I recall papers returned to me practically bleeding in red ink. I remember long sentences we had to diagram, but grammar made as much sense to me as algebraic equations, meaning not much. Long ago as a ten year old kid, I dreamed of being a writer. By the time I left high school, that dream was dead.
This all changed when I attended NCTE in 2011. At that annual conference I met many friends I had only really known through Twitter. And at the ALAN breakfast with Ruth, late night conversations with Colby and Tony, long talks with Donalyn, I was nudged repeatedly, to try writing again. I left that conference and started my blog the next week. I remember the terror of writing my first post, what if no one read it? And, even scarier, what if someone did? Yet, I still posted.
Six and a half years later, I’m still posting. My posting is erratic, I write a ton, then radio silence for a few weeks, but I’ve committed to being a writer. Through that blog, I’ve learned a lot of lessons which I, in turn, share with my students:
The more I write, the easier it is. This is a lesson I have to learn all over again every year. I often participate in the March Slice of Life challenge ran by the blog Two Writing Teachers. Each year I fear I’m over committing myself. Each year I find reading gets easier and easier as the month goes on. This year I did my own March challenge and found the same to hold true. By the time the end of the month rolled around, ideas for what to write that night popped up in my mind all day long. I just needed to commit to the daily habit of writing.
Writing helps me reflect. This was an unexpected consequence of starting my blog. I’m not sure what I thought would come of it when I began, but it has made me a better teacher. I’m able to process what happens in my classroom through my writing. And, something I never dreamed of, people read it and share their thoughts in return. For example, years ago I was sitting at the pool shortly after the end of the school year. A student who had just ended the year with me came over and we talked about reading logs. I went home, still thinking about Josh, and wrote this post. It is still the most read post on my blog. Writing that post helped me clarify my thinking on a controversial issue in our field.
When dealing with large emotion, I find a need to write. I knew this when I was young, from eight to ten years old, I kept a journal. After I began to suspect I was a bad writer, I stopped, only picking one up once in awhile. Now that I have a commitment to writing once again, I write to process huge feelings as I did just a few weeks ago when my uncle passed away with this post. The impact of a post like this surprised me, I wrote to make sense of what was going on in my head, in my heart. I didn’t expect it would help other people in their own grief. I’ve written posts when I’m trying to deal with a bad day in the classroom, when I’ve lost someone I love. The comments back help to heal me as much as the act of writing has.
Writing had made me a more true version of myself. I’m an introvert. It is easy for me to fade to the background when a large group of people gather, I prefer not to be noticed. I think this was also tied to my self-confidence, or lack of it, at times. Through writing, I’ve begun to find more value in who I am and recognize when my own subconscious is being unkind in my mind. I think it comes from realizing that my own inner editor, who I’ve named Helga, is constantly telling me my writing is not “enough”. I know, by now, that it isn’t horrible and I ignore her. This has made me wake up when that inner voice is being unkind to me in other areas of my life. This is a lesson I’ve shared with my middle schoolers many times, because they have their own “Helgas”. As Ian in my class named his Susan, he shared that he likes to say, “Shut it, Susan.” whenever she gets out of hand.
My commitment to writing is still evolving. Just this month I’ve pledged to my friend, Cindy, that I will write thirty minutes a day in a fiction novel. This is far out of my comfort zone, but I’m learning all sorts of things about myself as I do. How about you? What can you commit to? I highly encourage you to find the area you need to grow in as I did. If it is writing, dive in. I promise the water is warm and it is a safe place to be.
Katherine Sokolowski has taught for more than 20 years, from kindergarten through seventh grade, and currently teaches seventh grade in Monticello, Illinois. Her thoughts about the power of relationships to engage readers and writers have appeared in NPR, Choice Literacy, and NCTE’s Voices from the Middle. Katherine co-facilitates The Nerdy Book Club blog and also writes for the blog Read Write Reflect at readwriteandreflect.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter @katsok.