Teachers Write 8/5/13 Mini-Lesson Monday with Lynda Mullaly Hunt

Good morning, everyone! We’re down to the last two weeks of Teachers Write, and I know we’ve lost some folks to school already. But I hope those of you who are still here will hang in there and keep sharing your amazing work.

LyndaMullalyHuntLow-resOur guest author today is Lynda Mullaly Hunt, the author of middle-grade novel, ONE FOR THE MURPHYS (Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin), winner of The Tassy Walden Award: New Voices in Children’s Literature, an ABA New Voices Pick, and an Editor’s Choice Book with Scholastic Book Clubs. Lynda has also directed the SCBWI-NE Whispering Pines Retreat for eight years and is a former teacher and Scenario Writing coach. Her second novel, ALPHABET SOUP, will be released in spring, 2015. Lynda lives with her husband, two kids, impetuous beagle and beagle-loathing cat. Today, Lynda’s discussing…

The Courage to Model Courage

As a writer, I learn things about myself that I didn’t know as I create stories. Something will leak from my fingers onto the keyboard and I’ll pause and think, I know where that comes from. These connections can create a myriad of emotions.

As writers, we are vulnerable. We have to be. Like the way a swimmer must get wet. But, this doesn’t necessarily mean that we only mine from the saddest facets of ourselves. It may mean that we are trying to be funny while wondering if our readers will laugh or scrunch their eyebrows up in confusion. It may mean that we are writing a mystery and working to get authentic red herrings in place. It may mean that we struggle for word choice, trying to drill into a universal human experience so that our readers feel emotion.

The thing is, no matter what the challenge, it’s often hard to be judged and writing for others is an open invitation to just that.

I’ve recently asked a few teacher friends if they’d share their own writing with students and most looked at me like I’d stuck them with a pin. But, I understand. It’s scary.

So, as teachers and writers and humans, how do we get past this? How do we help ourselves—and our students—move past the fear of asking the world, “What do you think?” and being ready for the answer.

As a third grade teacher prepping kids for the writing sample of The Fourth Grade Mastery Test, we did a lot of writing. A lot.

And I saw this fear and worry around writing every year. Here are some things I did to try to help my students learn to let go and write without worry. Without fear. Because this is when a writer often discovers her own voice.

  • I told my students that something “set in paper” is not “set in stone.” Not everything you write will be great – and that’s okay. Even as a published author, I will often write pages of stuff I know I won’t keep in order to get that one sentence that ends up being the seed for a chapter of its own. So, just write! Push through the times you feel your writing is not quite what you’d hope for. Believe in your ability to shock and surprise yourself.
  • During writing times, I’d sit at a student desk (I had an extra for this purpose) and write with the kids. I never forced anyone to share but I always did and they looked forward to it. Do you know why? Because I was NOT a good writer at that time. Seriously. I really wasn’t. But do you know what kids admire even more than good writing?

Honesty and bravery.

  • I’d buy notebooks and/or journals (dollar store has them) and give them to the kids with a message: “These are for you. They are for fun to just write whatever you like. I will never correct them. I will never grade them. If you turn them in to share your writing with me, I will only tell you about the things I love about it.”

The kids wrote  in these during that getting ready morning time (I’d have a suggested topic on the board each morning but the kids could write about anything they chose). They were also free to write in them when their work was done. Sometimes, I would converse with kids through them; a lot of great things came out of these journals besides just writing. Removing the fear of negative judgment really opened the kids up, so the amount of writing in them steadily grew throughout the year. And why not? How many of us would like a deal like this?

  • I would often go home at night and write terrible stories. Deadly boring. Off topic. Illogically ordered. If it wasn’t truly bad, I’d start again. I’d make a point to make the same kinds of mistakes that I knew the class needed to recognize in their own writing. Then I’d give out copies to my students along with red pens and say, “Fail me if you’d like, but you better explain why.” Even I was shocked at how deep these kids dug to fail the teacher – a lot of kids dream of this, don’t they?

It got to a point I would show up, warm copies in hand, and tell them, “Okay. This is it. Today I’ve got it. This is going to be the one that convinces you that I’m a fantastic writer.” Of course it was terrible – because it was meant to be. And they would let me know with arms flailing, faces on desks, and sympathetic shakes of their heads. We all had good laughs over it. They learned a lot about critiquing on these writing adventures but no doubt that they learned that feedback on writing is not personal. Not something to be afraid of. If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not trying hard enough.

  • Finally, my message for them—and my message for you—is that you should not compare your writing to anyone else’s. You can’t write what they write and they can’t write what you write. A voice is like a fingerprint and unique to each person. As teachers, we must teach the hows of writing. The nuts and bolts. This way, our kids have the tools to tackle the task. But the actual writing? That is about having something to say. It’s about the being human part.

And the being human part – well, I’ve always felt like that’s the very best part of teaching as well.

Today’s assignment: Reflect on Lynda’s thoughts as they relate to your teaching life, and/or head on over to Jo’s blog to participate in the Monday Morning Warm-Up!  Share your thoughts in the comments if you’d like – let us know you’re still here!

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40 Comments

  1. Posted August 5, 2013 at 6:57 am | Permalink

    Thank you for this! I’m currently planning an inspiration board to share with my students for the year, as I’m going to make them create one, and my academic goal is to use writer’s notebooks in class this year and to complete quick writes with my students. I wasn’t sure how to write the goal, but with your permission, I’d love to include your title The Courage To Model Courage and to use your message on their books. They need to know it’s nerve-wracking for all of us to share or complete writing, but it’s so satisfying when something works and gets the reaction you only dreamed of. I was away last week with my in-laws and my sister and mother in-law states they don’t write. They worry over every word and sentence and shut down when confronted with a writing task. Both are very intelligent people. This just confirmed the importance of quick writes and building writing stamina. If you never free yourself to try it, you never find out that sometimes the pen in your hand can free the thoughts in your brain and you can discover new truths about yourself, your feelings and how you see the world around you. This was a perfectly timed topic, Lynda. Thank you. I’ve learned and been confirmed in so much thinking through Teachers Write this summer.

    • Posted August 5, 2013 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

      Hey, Stefanie! I’d be honored for you to use any part of this post with your goals and/or students. Thank you  I don’t know that I can build upon anything that you’ve said, as you’ve said it all so well. So, I’ll just totally agree with you on your points—that a person’s ability to get things down on paper often has nothing to do with intelligence. It’s all about fear; I’ve never met a writer who doesn’t know this well.
      And, being published doesn’t diminish that fear. In fact, in some ways it’s heightened. So, I’ve learned that, although my writing is a huge part of me, feedback on writing is not feedback on me as an individual. The ability to separate these two is important and keeps you sane while you improve.
      I have been working on a presentation for a conference and looking for writing samples to critique. So, I went back to my early writing. I’m shocked at how bad it is with its tons of telling and too much detail. No, seriously. Totally unpublishable. I remember, though, how I pursued honest feedback and worked hard to improve. I got to the “What the heck” point where I’d leap time and again for feedback from people I knew would tell me like it was. And you know what? The more you do it, the easier it gets.

  2. esmeraldame@hotmail.
    Posted August 5, 2013 at 7:16 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the inspiration. I never realized that by putting myself in that position, I too am demonstrating courage and bravery. I agree that students admire that and it takes a lot for us teachers to just share our own writers notebook. I’ve shared my notebook before, but I’ve always felt ashamed and afraid of what every little heart and soul might think. Next time I share my journal, I will consider the fact that someone else in the room is just as nervous as I am, if not more.

    • Posted August 5, 2013 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

      And, thanks so much for the response.  Even now, as a “professional writer” I am nervous about reading my work to other writers. I just figure that if you’re nervous/afraid it just means that you care and that certainly isn’t a bad thing. Thanks, again, for writing! And for teaching!!

  3. Kristina Paustian
    Posted August 5, 2013 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    I wrote in front of the class when we were studying memoir using the document camera. The teacher’s aide mentioned to me that so many of the girl’s stories mimicked mine. I felt a little foolish then, but maybe they were using it as a mentor text? This year I have put up 20 clipboards on an ancient wall sized bulletin board in my new room. Since I will have 16 students I displayed some of my writing from Teachers Write on the four empty clipboards as an example. We’ll see what reviews I get from them! I also plan to write alongside of them after reading 2 exemplary writing books this summer: Writing to Explore, and 10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know.

    • Posted August 5, 2013 at 7:54 am | Permalink

      I think it’s great that you show them you learn and grow too. Will they know you participated in Teachers Write and that’s where the writing came from?

      • Kristina Paustian
        Posted August 5, 2013 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

        Yes, I wrote Teachers Write at the top under my name where you would usually put the page numbers etc. I’m sure some teachers roll their eyes when they see the display and think “She’s always going on about the Teachers Write!” : )

    • Posted August 5, 2013 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

      Whoa, Kristina. You get the Bravery Ribbon for the day. Writing live? That should be a reality show, I think.

      Love your idea of posting work. Very cool. And, I see no problem with kids’ work mimicking yours. I know published authors who sit down and type work they admire *word-for-word* to learn the rhythm of the writing. There are worse ways to begin a writing life then emulating a teacher you admire!

      Thanks for the book recs – will look for them later today. 

      • Posted August 5, 2013 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

        Okay. Would you all believe that I used “then” there instead of “than” to show that we all make mistakes–to hit you over the head with this lesson? “No,” you say? You’re very smart people. That was me mangling the English language. Just a little. (And I won’t even go on about “little” and “mangle” being oxymoron-esque. Perhaps a bit dramatic? :-).

      • Kristina Paustian
        Posted August 5, 2013 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

        Not brave at all. I can make a fool of myself in front of kids, but never, ever in front of grownups.

        • Posted August 5, 2013 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

          Ah, I would agree that kids are easier to be more vulnerable with. However, I think they are also more likely to be completely honest. “From the mouth’s of babes.” Adult audiences will sometimes make me nervous. Kids? Never. 🙂

  4. Jessica Loupos
    Posted August 5, 2013 at 8:00 am | Permalink

    Hi Lynda! Great piece here. The first time I shared my writing with my third graders I was ready for the snarky critiques (from those infamous wise guys, just waiting for a chance to chide the teacher and not get in trouble.) I was also ready for the accolades; I was their favorite teacher, right? What I wasn’t ready for, was the blank stares, quiet voices, nothingness. I learned a few things that day. 1. Expect the unexpected – always. 2. Being brave (and vulnerable) builds character, and showing this to students is invaluable. 3. If someone, be it student or adult, ever shares anything with you – say something!! I will now take these lessons into my own writing as well, because, our characters are people too. 🙂

    • Posted August 5, 2013 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

      Hey, Jessica! Yes, the rule in teaching anything is to be ready for the unexpected. And, I also agree that “No news is good news” does not apply to writers. The creative mind of a writer will often conjure up all kinds of terrible thoughts when faced with silence re: one’s writing. *Clears throat* Well, erm…that’s what I’ve heard, anyway. 🙂 

  5. Posted August 5, 2013 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this encouraging message. I always write with my students and they critique me along with their classmates. We use sticky notes, call them criticycles, and make a + sign, a ^, and a ? for writing what we liked, something to consider changing, and a question. These criticycle times are sacred, and the students often request them. They build a community of writers while building skills and confidence as writers. I don’t have to purposefully write badly because most rough drafts are pretty bad anyway. I share with them the changes I make based on their suggestions. I would not have it any other way.

    • Posted August 5, 2013 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

      Criticycles! That’s great, Margaret! I agree–I really do think that sharing writing with each other does build community. You have very lucky students!

  6. Debbie Krygeris
    Posted August 5, 2013 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    Hi Lynda,

    First have to say that I LOVED One for the Murphy’s. This is one book (of many) that I cannot wait to share with my class this year. Much of what you wrote above really resonated with me. I do write with my students, but I love the idea of sitting at an empty desk in the room. I also share my writing but it’s hard to get some kids to share. You have the ones that always volunteer, and then those that never do. That’s a struggle.

    I also love your idea of telling the students you’ll never grade what’s in their notebooks and the reminder that your voice is never going to the same as someone else’s, so why even try to compare your writing to a classmate’s writing. Really good reminders as I get ready to begin the year.

    Now a question or at least if you have some comment that would be great. This year my class will have 1:1 ipads. So, I really want to use them as much as possible, the paper savings alone will be tremendous. I myself like to write on a computer, I find handwriting in a notebook more difficult. But, I’m thinking that I’ll need to give students the option of paper or ipad and let them choose what they want to use daily. OR do you think I should use paper notebooks for a writing journal? I’m torn…but I feel like we need to respect what feels right for each writer, so that may look a little different in my class, even on a daily basis. Anyone have some feedback or thoughts on this?

    Thanks so much for participating in TeachersWrite. This has just been a fantastic experience!

    • Posted August 5, 2013 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

      Thanks so much, Debbie, for your kind words re: One for the Murphys. I am honored that you will recommend it to your students this year.
      I think the kids really loved that I sat at a desk right in the thick of things. As a teacher, we are their friend, but there is a professional separation that we must keep as well. This was an opportunity to completely drop that for a while. The kids laughed at the site of it, at first. But, it also further developed our rapport and their trust in me, as well. Not to mention the fact that it was fun!
      When I taught, there were no i-pads for our use. However, if I taught now, I think I would have a day when *everyone* wrote with the i-pad and another day when everyone wrote using the notebook, etc.. I think people tend to shy away from new things (although kids are often less so like this.) but by having a structure where everyone tries out everything and then chooses the best for each of them, they will choose knowing what the alternatives are. (other teachers—please feel free to weigh in!)
      I carry a notebook with me all the time. I write ideas by hand but the flow of the voice would be hindered by my slow handwriting compared to the use of a keyboard (I can’t type quickly on an i-pad. I don’t think I could do something of great length on it without extra keyboard. Perhaps with more practice?) So, in your class, I may use both! Thanks for being the kind of teacher that leaves room for everyone’s learning differences! You are awesome!!

  7. Posted August 5, 2013 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    How I wish we’d been teaching colleagues, Lynda! I can only imagine how much your students loved you. 🙂

    • Posted August 5, 2013 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

      Hey, Natalie. Oh, we would have made so many great memories as co-teachers. I’d love to get down to your neck of the woods some day and meet your students. Perhaps we could co-teach for one day. 

      • Posted August 5, 2013 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

        Let’s do it! I’ll be the librarian at a new school this year, one that has had several author visits in the past, so do let me know if you’re in my neck of the woods!

        • Posted August 5, 2013 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

          Hey! I’ll be near Richmond, VA for a week in February doing five back-to-backs. I would LOVE to swing by. 🙂

  8. Brian R
    Posted August 5, 2013 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    “If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not trying hard enough.” Lynda’s words echo my wife’s advice for skiing and mountain biking. I can attest the approach is sometimes painful, mildly embarrassing, and inevitably effective.

    • Posted August 5, 2013 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

      HA! Thanks for the laugh, Brian. Yes—we bleed a bit as writers but not nearly as much as mountain bikers. Both adventurous spirits, though. Thanks so much for dropping by and commenting. Have a tremendous day. :-)

  9. Posted August 5, 2013 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    I love these statements, especially the final one about each person’s writing being like a fingerprint. That is so true, but one off the hardest things to remember. I am going to be doing a lot of writing with my students and sharing what I’ve written. I love the idea of having them critique and grade my writing, as long as they explain why. I think that is a great way to get kids excited about writing (and practice skills too!). If anything, Teachers Write has taught me that writing is hard, sharing is harder, and feedback is super scary. I’m glad I relearned those before the school year. I also learned that it can be fun and you have to share the good with the bad because that’s how we get better. I love that the words are written on paper, not in stone. I think that’s something that students struggle with a lot. Along with finding the right idea, having to be good enough, and the I don’t know what to write about. Letting them write about anything and letting that be good enough and not be for a grade (although, I will have to have them write papers for a grade sometimes) will hopefully relieve some of the pressure that they feel to do it “right” instead of just “write”. Thanks for this post! 🙂

    • Posted August 5, 2013 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

      Thank you, Renee! Your comment is very sweet and I am so glad that you found some things that resonate with you here.

      Before I was published, I asked Patricia Reilly Giff, “When you read a book you think is brilliant, does it serve to inspire you or discourage you?” (Because I was finding so much wonderful writing then—and feeling like I’d never “get there.”)

      She smiled and said that she had asked Katherine Paterson the same question many years earlier. Katherine had replied, “You’re a teacher, right?”

      She’d nodded.

      “Well, when those students of yours are waiting for you in the morning, do you stare down that hallway at all the other doors and wonder if you are like the other teachers or do you just close your door and do what only YOU can do?”

      Never forgot it.

  10. Posted August 5, 2013 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

    Excellent advice, Lynda. Without a doubt you have changed the lives of many children, through your own teaching an the honesty your characters show in your stories.

    The past four years I have been working toward sharing more of my writing self with my students. This year I shared my notebooks, my struggles, my triumphs, my works in progress, my writing loves, everything.
    You know what happened? I experienced the closest writing relationship with students ever.
    I collected their writing notebooks every two weeks. Even though it took every planning period I had to get through them each day (including lunch, of course!) I knew it was an important part of our writing and writing community process. The majority of students completed one writing notebook, about thirty completed two and were working on a third by the end of the school year. At the end of the year the kids told me how important that sharing was to them. You see, I broke a little “writer’s notebook rule” from the “educators” point of view. As a writer I know how important validation is, so I wrote in those student notebooks. I used sticky notes to mark the things I loved, because young writers can not always see when they have done something well. (Ex. Wow! What a simile! or, I can feel your character’s fear here) Then, at the end of their entries I wrote them a letter.
    I learned who they were as people and as writers, and I was able to share bits of my writing life with them as well.
    There were a few students who were devastated the second to last week of school when I said it was the last notebook collection. A couple of them begged to squeeze into the last week. How cool is that?
    To anyone out there who is nervous about taking the sharing step I say, “Good. That means you care.” Now, push the fear aside. Reread Lynda’s advice at the top of the page. In sharing you are doing only what you ask of your students. Writing is highly personal. Your students, regardless of their age (I teach grade 6) will love you for it. They will recognize your courage and they will use it. It’s like crossing that shaky bridge above the ravine. You are the safety net, the secure image that will pull them across, and they will be all the better, stronger, more confident for it. To borrow the theme from Lynda’s One for the Murphys: Be someone’s hero.
    Go for it!

    • Posted August 5, 2013 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

      WOW! Next time I need help with a blog post, I know who to call. This is amazing—can I be one of your students? I bet they begged for one more week. So would I.  Thanks so much for this lovely, insightful comment, Kim!

      • Posted August 5, 2013 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

        Thank-you! It’s being part of a writing community that gave me the courage to step out and share with my students.
        I hold onto the realization I came to four years ago: If art teachers are artists, and music teachers are musicians, shouldn’t writing teachers be writers?
        I finally acted on it and started writing. My whole world – teaching, parenting, living, became WOW.
        The school visits, the skyping, the advice that you and other authors give on teachers write and your website are so critical to making our classrooms work.
        You and your fellow authors get us to “cross the bridge” -so, thank-you for all your honesty and help!

        • Posted August 6, 2013 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

          Thank you, again, Kimberly. It is truly a pleasure to help other writers. Before landing a contract, there were many who helped me throughout SCBWI. I am enjoying carrying on that tradition.

          Love this: \”I hold onto the realization I came to four years ago: If art teachers are artists, and music teachers are musicians, shouldn’t writing teachers be writers?\”

          Also–agreed. Writing has changed my life in immeasurable ways. Even before the contracts. It introduced me to facets of myself that I\’d never known existed.

          Thank you, again!

  11. Posted August 5, 2013 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

    Whoops – that should be ‘and’ in the first line!

    • Posted August 5, 2013 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

      I didn’t notice this typo. Thanks so much for your reference to One for the Murphys. Be someone’s hero. I think you’ve got that one covered.

  12. andrea p
    Posted August 5, 2013 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

    Lynda,
    Thank you for the mini-lesson today. I wrote down several quotes because I could relate. One is “writing set in paper is not set in stone”. And I love how you sit at the kids desk to write, I’ve done that too. Not all the time, and I didn’t really think about what I did until you wrote about it. I also like how the kids need to explain why they “failed you” when you write “bad”. And, lastly, I really appreciated how you talked about everyone’s voice. That we all write with our own, and it can’t really be compared to others. It made me feel better “hearing” that. Thanks!

    • Posted August 5, 2013 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

      Thanks, Andrea! I’m so glad that you liked the post and took the time to comment. And, I’m honored that you also took the time to write down some quotes—thanks so much. Wishing you and your students a wonderful school year!

  13. Janet Ellis
    Posted August 5, 2013 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

    What an inspiration this post is to me. I can’t wait to sit in one of \”their\” desks and write. They will love critiquing my work! After years of teaching writing, I\’ve prayed for ways to recharge my teaching. This did it. Thx!!!

    • Posted August 12, 2013 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

      Thanks so much, Janet. I am happy and honored that my post helped to recharge you a bit. I hope you have an amazing school year–I have a feeling that you will. 🙂

  14. Posted August 5, 2013 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

    What great comments! I also sit and write with my students at a desk and always share with them. It is incredibly scary, but they always love hearing it. I have to do more of the free write journaling this year. I have been very structured the past few years and it is my goal to get more of their thoughts going. Thank you for the advice and things to think about when planning my first days back!

    • Posted August 5, 2013 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

      Hey, Krista! Yes, it is scary to share your writing with kids. But, they don’t have the expectations that we have for ourselves. If you’re vulnerable, I have found that they are usually pretty kind. Besides, rumor has it that you’re a pretty great writer.  Take care!

  15. Heidi
    Posted August 5, 2013 at 11:12 pm | Permalink

    This was just the post I needed today. Thank you. We are getting ready for the beginning of the school year at our school. We’re going on home visits, writing out block plans, getting together new ideas and mixing them with tried and true lessons plans. During the frenzy of thoughts and plans, it was a much-needed relief and reminder of our purpose and attitude as teachers. I found many wonderful points and ideas, but I wrote down three quotes from the post that really stuck out to me.

    “Do you know what kids admire even more than good writing? Honesty and bravery.”
    So true. Not only in writing, but in all aspects of teaching. Kids need to see us doing what we ask them to do.

    “You should not compare your writing to anyone else’s. You cannot write what they write and they can’t write what you write.”
    What a great reminder! I, as the teacher, need this reminder. And again, this is true in life. Each of us is a unique piece of the puzzle. What if everyone wrote like everyone else? We would only have one book.

    “A voice is like a fingerprint and unique to each person.”

    Beautiful. Just a beautiful description of a writer’s voice. I want to put this quote up in my classroom. (If you don’t mind, Lynda. I’ll be sure to give you credit.)

    Thank you, Lynda, for this breath of fresh air today.

    • Posted August 6, 2013 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

      This is so sweet—thank you.

      I know that teachers work very hard—harder than non-teachers would ever imagine. The kids leave at 3:00, but most teachers work several hours beyond that. Over the summer, teachers are attending classes (often on their own dime), reading books, creating curriculum, researching, working on their rooms, creating new units, reaching out to incoming students. It is a career of the heart. Our students are never far from our thoughts. The teacher mind is always thinking, working, planning.

      Thank you, again, for your post. I LOVE your follow-up comments to my quotes and I would be honored to have anything on the wall of your classroom. I think your students are very lucky to have such a caring, insightful teacher. Cheers to you!

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