National Writing Project

Well-Seasoned Teacher Thrives at Summer Institute

By: Carol A. Lafrance
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 5, No. 5
Date: November-December 2000

Summary: A middle-school teacher for twenty-eight years, Carol A. Lafrance finds she can still be a learner when she attends the Third Coast Writing Project's summer institute.

 

"Seasoned." What a lovely euphemism for old! But Corey said it, and it got me thinking. As a "seasoned" classroom teacher, 28 years in the middle school, I found myself near the top of the seniority ladder in the summer institute of the Third Coast Writing Project. Near the top? Let's face it; I've been in the classroom longer than many of my co-fellows have been on the face of the Earth! This situation created a unique role for me. "What do you think?" the other participants asked me. "How would you do this?" "Maybe you know of a better way to . . ." Wow! This seasoned stuff was getting better all the time.

While I appreciated their respect, it forced me into some serious self-evaluation. As a teacher of reading and writing, I've always been willing to try new ideas, to take a risk. And I've never been afraid to ask advice of the experts—the kids. I believed I'd always done a respectable job of teaching writing. It's a process. Take it step by step. First, do some pre-writing. You know, get some ideas down on paper: list, map, outline—do whatever works for you. Then write the rough draft. Get with your group: revise (for content and organization), edit (for word choice and sentence variety), and proofread (for mechanics). Yes, indeed, I had a neat model with "teachable" steps, tips, and techniques that everyone should be able to implement. We could all improve our writing.

Everyone, that is, but me. Whoever asked to see my writing? For that matter, whoever even asked me to write? And I certainly never had to face evaluation! Then along came the Third Coast Writing Project summer institute. Excuse me. Did I understand you to say you want me to write? Well, okay, I thought, adventurous soul that I am. I can sit at that little round table over there and jot down a few nuggets. Now wait a minute, you want me to share what I wrote? Oh, an intimate little trio of us will share. I can handle that. Pardon? Don't just talk about what you wrote; read it to us . . . out loud . . . word for word. Now this is going a bit too far, don't you think?

That's when the big light bulb in the sky went on! I ask kids to do this in my classroom every single day! I've been asking (now that's a real euphemism—let's be honest—try demanding) this of them for 28 years. Just how many kids does that add up to? Have I been doing all these kids an injustice for all these years? No. I have been a good teacher: modeling, coaching, and guiding, always step by step. What I haven't been is a good learner!

As a learner at the summer institute, I was beginning to see a parallel universe unfold before me. For the first time in my life, writing for at least an hour every day, I began to feel what my students must feel. What am I going to write about? I don't have any good ideas. There's absolutely nothing in my head. Everyone writes better than I. That's when I realized the heart of my discomfort—having to open myself up, to make myself vulnerable, to expose my writing for feedback and "constructive criticism." Oh, sure, everyone said don't worry about it. Everyone said it was a safe, caring, nurturing community. The rhetoric went on and on, but it didn't take away a single ounce of my apprehension. This is frightening was the only thought bouncing about in my brain.

Did I survive? Oh, yes! And I did a lot more than just survive; I thrived. Did I ever find an idea about which to write? I now keep a tiny blue spiral notebook in my purse, full of ideas, ready to work with, one by one. Can I write? Do I have a voice? It's not that loud yet, but I hear it clearly from time to time.

What changed? People were telling me the truth. I had a community that gave me the courage to take the risks I could never have even imagined a month before. Working in a peer response group with individuals who felt the same way I did—who understood because we shared the same frustrations and were able to coach and encourage each other—has opened my eyes and ears to sights and sounds I never knew I was perceiving.

What will I take with me, back to my classroom? What have I learned?

Everyone is a writer. Everyone has a voice: a strong and powerful voice that deserves recognition. All writers need time, tons of time—to reflect, to create, to share; to revise, revise, revise. All writers need support, positive feedback, and encouragement, mountains of encouragement. Don't tell me what I did wrong. Show me what you liked. Let me hear my words spoken by your lips. Tell me you want to know more. Let me know how my words affect you.

About the Author Carol A. Lafrance is a teacher-consultant with the Third Coast Writing Project at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.

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