Writing About Writing

I have learned a lot about myself as a writer in just a few short years of blogging. I have noticed I love over-using commas, I am horrible with verb tenses, I jump around a lot in my thinking, and I am much more inclined to write when inspired by something, than on a given topic. In addition to the logistics of my writing, I have personally learned that writing publicly about teaching can be a very vulnerable place in which to reflect and learn with others.

Lately, there have been a lot of conversations on Twitter around teacher-writers. Recently I engaged in (more like butted in) on a conversation with Chris and Michael, only to realize one more interesting thing about myself as a writer: I never really think about how I am writing when I am writing. I typically sit and start typing my thoughts, questions, things I saw, heard and learned. When Michael suggested we compare the styles of Saunders in his piece entitled “The Perfect Gerbil,” which I had never read, and Lampert, who I am reading now, I was intrigued. Before I go on, let me highly recommend both of these works!

As I read Saunders work, which unbeknownst to me was not about math but instead story-telling, I realized that I probably never thought about my style of writing as a writer because I have never really considered this when I read. Do I not consider it because when I read fiction I fixate on the storyline to escape thinking about the details and moves of the author, or when I read math ed books I am seeking out an authority on a topic or possibly because when I read blogs I focus on my connection to the content? Now, given two completely different works to compare, I struggle with how to think about this within a common viewpoint as Michael does so beautifully here.

As I began thinking about the two works  in terms of style, I had a few questions:  Is it more natural to write about someone else’s work from a place of writer and reader as peers than it is about one’s one work? Does an expert/authority point of view naturally come with writing about a nonfiction experience versus writing about writing fiction?  What implications for teacher-writing come from each of the different styles? The best way for me to work through these is to compartmentalize and deal with each question individually. I don’t know if by the end I have any real point or even address the intention of our reading assignment, but here it goes…

Is it more natural to write about someone else’s work who you appreciate from a place of writer and reader as peers than it is about one’s one work?

In Saunders’ piece, I felt his appreciation for Donald Barthelme’s writing and it was as if we were co-reading it. He was masterful in pulling me into the art of storytelling with him and I absolutely loved his writing style. However, would that have felt the same if he did not have an appreciation for that piece of work? Would his style have changed and would I have then felt badly for the subject of his writing and therefore not felt a camaraderie with Saunders? Would we no longer have felt like peers? And, although he was not talking about his own work, I still felt as if I was on this mutual reading journey with an expert. He incorporated analogies such as the one below that made me realize he knows things about writing that I don’t and he made me want to learn more. It left me with questions for him.

Screen Shot 2015-12-27 at 10.52.54 AM.png

This same expert type of feeling comes in a different way when I read Lampert’s book. Like Saunders, she talks about the problems of practice and impact of the moves we make, but instead of being about another person’s teaching or how one writes, it is about her own teaching of math. However, while I initially thought this would position her differently in terms of writer and reader, I felt just as much of a peer feeling with her as I did with Saunders. I loved her framing of the purpose of the book in the beginning and that set the tone for me as a reader.

“My intention in writing this book is not to argue in favor of a particular approach to teaching or to have the last word on the nature of the teaching practice, but to contribute to the conversation about the nature of the work that schoolteachers do.”

I felt that although she is an expert to me in terms of teaching, we were still peers. This could be because she is speaking my 5th grade language, asking so many of the questions I have had myself, and the fact that the book feels like a blogging journal to me. I am only on chapter 5, but I feel like I am on this teaching journey with her. Would I feel the same way if it were not the curriculum work I have been invested in for over 10 years? I also wonder how her work would sound if it were about someone else’s classroom where she was a fan of the teaching?

Does an expert point of view naturally come with writing about a nonfiction experience versus writing about writing fiction? Does fiction create more of a reader/writer relationship?

At first, I completely thought Saunders’ piece felt more like writer/reader as peers because he was talking about writing fiction. The freedom of fiction characters and their actions feels like something we all can talk about because it is changeable. In teaching, the characters, both students and ourselves, are not as easily changed. For that reason I thought the expert position happened naturally because you need to know about the students and, in Lampert’s case, the math involved.

However, the more I think about this and detach the content (which is hard for me) it is not so much about the fiction vs nonfiction but more what things are happening vs control over what things might happen next. This is where I do feel more of a peer feeling with Saunders and expert feeling with Lampert, both of which I completely understand and appreciate within their purposes for their writings.

For example, Saunders writes as if he wonders with us who the characters are and what their next moves will be, with neither of us having control over it. He shares these wonders with lines such as,

“Will they do it?” and “A few lines ago we didn’t even know Helen existed.”

As I read, I felt like we were both on this ride together, where we could be surprised, happy, or disappointed by what happened next in the story. However, while this felt like a writer/reader moment, I did know in the back of my mind that he would experience these emotions based on a much more expert view of literary writing than myself. Either way, it wasn’t about either of us in those moments, it was about Barthelme’s choice.

Lampert, writes about her thoughts, reflections and observations where she obviously is the authority. She has control over what is happening next in her planning  and teaching so there are no mutual surprises or wonderings happening next between the writer and reader because she is in control of her questions and moves. I know in reading her work that I am taking what I learn and applying to my own about teaching and learning. I have no control over what happens next in her classroom, just as she would have no control over what I take and apply in my classroom. This is what I see mainly happening in teacher-writing, my own included, which leads me to my last question…

What implications for teacher-writing come from each of the different styles?

After all of this rambling, I think I have come to the non-surprising conclusion that there are important places for both of these styles in teacher-writing. The more important question is, how do we make this happen?

I personally learn a lot from just sitting, reflecting and writing about what happened in class each day around various pieces of a lesson.  I wouldn’t say these posts, however,  engage others in the learning with me. And while I would never call myself an authority on anything I blog, I am wondering if there are ways to draw others into the learning with me? Wouldn’t it be amazing if we moved from “learning something from a blog” to “learning with people based on a blog ?”

In looking back at my original questions, I am left with these new questions for us as teacher-writers…

  • Could writing about a common piece of work in relation to our own work help connect readers and writers and empower more readers to write?
  • Could writing more with unknown pieces or mutual wonderings encourage readers and writers to connect more? For example, if we didn’t know the next moves and possible impact on student thinking, could we put ideas out there and learn together?
  • How can we take the problems that Lampert does such a beautiful job writing about in her book and highlight their realities in our own classrooms? Could we write these classroom stories as Saunders does, inviting others to work with us in solving these problems openly, publicly in conversations more than 140 characters?

So, as with the ending to many of my blog posts, I don’t know if I really addressed anything or was even on track with the original conversation Michael and I had! But, I did get introduced to Saunders’ work, who I cannot wait to read more from, read a few more chapters in Lampert’s book which is awesome and gained a new perspective on how I write. All in all a great learning experience!

2 thoughts on “Writing About Writing

  1. Jennifer Hogan (@Jennifer_Hogan)

    I SO loved reading this blog post from you!! I especially loved the quote: “Wouldn’t it be amazing if we moved from ‘learning something from a blog’ to ‘learning with people based on a blog ?'” I think that THAT is the heartbeat of collaboration. The thinking that shifts us from reflection to one of application ALONG with another person.

    I also know that you are a “math person,” which I’m sure influenced my perceptions and interpretations as I read your descriptions of the two authors. I also enjoyed Chris and Michael’s convo about the difference between theorist & practitioner. My desire is that I will always have a practitioner’s viewpoint rather than a theorist’s.

    Thanks for sharing!



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