Teachers Write Special Guest Donalyn Miller, on “Writing Where You Are”

Happy Friday! Congratulations on wrapping up your first week of Teachers Write 2013 – it’s been amazing to read your brave ideas and to watch writerly relationships growing. Many thanks to all who shared this week or commented to cheer on other writers.

Every Friday this summer, the party moves over to Gae Polisner’s blog for Friday Feedback, a chance to share your writing, get some feedback, and give feedback to others, too. Wondering how to do that in a helpful, supportive way? You may want to check out this essay I wrote for the Stenhouse Summer Blogstitute last year:

How to Critique Writing

It includes excerpts from the real editorial letter I received from my kind, smart Walker/Bloomsbury editor,  Mary Kate Castellani when we were working together on THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z. and offers specific ideas for how you can use Mary Kate’s strategies to encourage writers and to help them think more deeply about their work. So check this out, and then head on over to Gae’s blog to give it a shot.

But before you do…I promised some surprises this summer, and I’m thrilled to share an extra special guest post today from none other than The Book Whisperer herself…Donalyn Miller.

Donalyn is a classroom teacher, blogger, and author. Her first professional title, THE BOOK WHISPERER, has encouraged teachers around the world to set aside the worksheets and dioramas and focus on real, authentic reading in their classrooms. Donalyn’s next book, READING IN THE WILD, comes out in November.

I think READING IN THE WILD will be one of the most important books you’ll read this year. It focuses on what makes a Reader… not a lower-case school reader who goes through the motions, but a lifelong Reader with a capital R, who lives and breathes words and loves to learn and inhabit new worlds. Can teachers help kids become that kind of Reader? Donalyn says yes and shows us how, with vivid examples from her own reading life and classroom.

Today, she’s sharing a bit more of her writing life with us in a special guest post that explores how you might get started writing about your own classroom, too.

Write Where You Are by Donalyn Miller

When I was a kid, writing well was part of the school game. I never wrote outside of school. I was told that I was a good writer. I earned high grades on my writing from teachers—the only audience who saw my writing. In high school, I wrote my assignments in the car on my way to school, while my best friend, Larry, navigated his Ford Pinto around potholes. I dodged my English teachers when they asked for my rough drafts. I never wrote any; it seemed like a waste of time. I don’t think I was ever taught how to write. I was a student of what my fellow Texan, Gretchen Bernabei, calls the “Ass/Ass” method of writing instruction: assign the writing, and then assess it. For me, writing was an obstacle course of grammar, mechanics, and formatting. I wrote the papers my teachers assigned, earned my A, and gave my papers to my mom to hang on the fridge.

Even after I became a language arts teacher, I didn’t write outside of school. I wrote in front of my students as a model—because my mentors told me I was supposed to—but that was it. Writing for the sake of writing held no relevance for me. I didn’t have a clue about how to teach writing. I knew that something was missing, and I was at a complete loss to figure out what it was.

During my fifth year of teaching, I enrolled in grad school. Every week that fall, I sat with colleagues, Audrey Wilson and Jennifer Isgitt, listening to them talk about the National Writing Project and how much it changed their professional lives. The fire I saw in their eyes when they talked about what they had learned about writing and teaching during the Summer Institute compelled me. I wanted that fire, too. I applied to the Writing Project that spring.  I wasn’t entirely sure what I was getting myself into, but I didn’t care. I only wanted to be a better writing teacher.

Spending a month that summer surrounded by other teachers as we wrote and shared our stories changed me. I finally understood that to be a better writing teacher, I needed to write. I began keeping a notebook and jotting poems and essays about my daughters. When school started, I recorded anecdotes about my students and our days together as readers and writers, too. Showing my real writing efforts with my students terrified me, but I discovered that sharing my writing life with my students helped them write better. Writing outside of school for the first time, I began to see myself as a writer.

Early that school year, I received a call from Elizabeth Rich, an editor at Teacher Magazine. Elizabeth had worked with my principal, Ron Myers, a few years before and she contacted him to see if he had any teachers who could write a one-shot “Ask the Mentor” column for the magazine. Ron told her, “I have one.”

After introducing herself, Elizabeth asked, “I hear that your students read 50 books a year without any rewards or incentives. Is that true?”

I replied, “Isn’t reading its own reward?”

She responded, “Well, how do you do it?”

Put on the spot, I realized that this was not an easy question to answer, “I don’t know. It’s like I’m some sort of whisperer. I talk to the kids about books and they read them.”

The moniker “The Book Whisperer” stuck as did Elizabeth’s original question, “How do you do it?” Through my writing, I have been trying to answer that question ever since—both for myself and for the people who read my writing. That first “Ask the Mentor” column turned into three. Teacher Magazine invited me to write a blog. I remember thinking at the time, “I won’t tell them that I don’t know the first thing about blogging.” When several publishers approached me about writing a book, I thought, “I wonder how long it will take them to figure out that I am not a writer?”  Whenever I receive an invitation to submit an article or write a blog post, it still surprises me. Don’t they know that I am still trying to figure out how to be a good writer? Don’t they know that I struggle with writing and hate it some days?

Dorothy Parker famously said, “I hate writing, I love having written.” I relate. I do. Discovering that I am able—in spite of crushing insecurity and my complete lack of discipline—to write something worthy amazes me.

I think it is OK to admit when we have a love/hate relationship with writing. The most important thing is to keep writing. We are writers because we write—nothing more, nothing less.

Penny Kittle talks about Writing Territories—topics that writers revisit again and again. My territories include my daughters, my love for nature, and my childhood stories. Mostly, I write about my students and our shared lives as readers and writers. As teacher writers, recording our classroom stories can be a great place to start writing. For teachers, writing about our classrooms is the ultimate reflective practice—we see how our daily interactions and observations inform our thinking about teaching and learning. We also capture our remarkable students, their experiences, and how they shape our lives.

Think about your classroom and your students. What moments stick with you? Record your daily anecdotes in your notebook. Start with what happens in your classroom each day. What did your students say and do? How did you respond or feel about what happened? What did you notice that was funny or insightful or poignant? After recording an event as well as you can, dig deeper into what this moment reveals about your teaching and your interactions with your students. Did this moment move your students forward somehow? What did you learn? How did this moment build community among your students and you? What did you discover about your students that you didn’t know?

Look back through your school stories occasionally to see what threads emerge. Is there an over-arching theme about your teaching that emerges? Perhaps, you can shape your anecdotes into an article and submit it to a professional journal. Is there a particular student that you write about often? Perhaps, this child can be the protagonist in a fictional story. For every teacher, our classroom stories provide powerful writing territory that fuels our writing and our teaching.


45 Replies on “Teachers Write Special Guest Donalyn Miller, on “Writing Where You Are”

  1. I loved Donalyn’s book The Book Whisperer and have been anxiously awaiting her new one. She is the master of giving sound, practical advice. I always feel empowered and able after reading something written by her! She is not only a mentor to her students but a mentor to other teachers.

  2. I am using a hero theme in my library this coming year and am planning to use Sara Bareilles’ song ‘Brave’ in a video to encourage kids to be braver with their reading. This post has encouraged me to be braver and to write about my year! I love Donalyn’s suggestions of where and how to look for prompts and ideas. I am going to be brave this year! Thank-you!

  3. Thank you! To Kate, Gae, Donalyn, and all the writers involved in facilitating Teachers Write! I’ve been stuck for 2 days and I complete identify with Donalyn’s experience. It never fails that I always think of something I want to write about when I’m driving or on the treadmill. Then I sit down at my computer and all those thoughts have vanished – even when I take a quick minutes to type some key thoughts into the Notepad app on my phone. I love the questions being posed to help spark ideas. I now have something in mind to help answer the questions for today’s quickwrite based on the questions Donalyn asked about my students. I so appreciate the candidness in the posts!!!

  4. I love Donalyn! I am glad that we are friends…I have learned so much from her that has really influenced both my personal and professional life! : )

  5. Great article! It’s so rewarding to know to share the two things I love most: reading and writing, with students I love.

  6. Kate, this class is a gift to all of us. I am so grateful to have found it, especially this particular summer. Now Donalyn too! (We were lucky to have her come see us in Vermont not long ago). This column is a real treat! Such authentic advice. I have loved being a specialist, but my heart and head spin and hum with the excitement of putting things in practice again in the way you can only do in the classroom. I will feel better prepared for writer’s workshop thanks to this opportunity.

  7. So many days I drove home from school thinking, “I should write down what happened today.” Then, I got home and life got in the way. This article and workshop are helping me to create habits that I will take into the school year. I will make time for writing just like I do reading. This first week has been wonderful.

  8. Donalyn inspires me. It was at another summer institute at North Star of Texas Writing Project –I think a year or so after her own–that Donalyn’s voice changed my teaching. I am still listening to her whispered advice. Thanks, friend.

  9. Thank-you Donalyn for putting into words exactly how I feel about writing. I’m there. I’d like the fire in my eyes too. Teacher’s Write is encouraging me to write more, so I’m starting off on my journey. We’ll see where it takes me!

  10. Thanks, Donalyn. I saw you speak a few years back in Orlando at the NWP conference. It was the most inspiring keynote I’ve ever seen. Thank you for your words that day, your books that inspire teachers every day and your words here today. I can’t wait for your new book!

  11. I would like to thank all of you who have created and are leading this wonderful summer writing camp. It has been a great week! Donalyn, thank you for sharing your own journey as a writer as well as advice. I love the idea of writing about my classroom to reflect on my practice and develop ideas for further writing. I’ve always said I should be writing down the things that happen there; now I have a solid reason to do it!

  12. First, thanks to Kate, Gae, and all the guests for Teachers Write. This week is the beginning of the best professional “learning” opportunity I’ve ever participated in. I’m rediscovering myself as a writer and that is exciting! I know it will help me be a better writing facilitator for my students.

    Donalyn, I was a 3rd year teacher when I read The Book Whisperer and your words provided me the backbone to “teach” reading the way I felt it should be taught in a sixth grade classroom. My students read their own choice books and we discuss books every day. They truly do begin to develop a reading life and I thank you for giving me the push I needed to do things differently, the way I thought they should be done. I look forward to your next book; it’s already preordered!

  13. This year was the first year that I kept a daily journal about school. Rereading it has been informative. Reflecting on my writing, I realize that sometimes I am conflicted about writing about my student’s experiences because they are their stories. But after reading your post I realize that my students this year because of their experiences have left marks on my heart, and as a result they made me become better.

  14. Donalyn, thank you. This especially speaks to me: “Dorothy Parker famously said, “I hate writing, I love having written.” I relate. I do. Discovering that I am able—in spite of crushing insecurity and my complete lack of discipline—to write something worthy amazes me.

    I think it is OK to admit when we have a love/hate relationship with writing. The most important thing is to keep writing. We are writers because we write—nothing more, nothing less.”
    You are awesome. You know I’m not a teacher, so I come at this from a different angle, but I’m always writing and thinking about writing and love hearing other perspectives on it. Your words really resonate with me.
    (And it’s hard to write something coherent in such a tiny box and worry about the math captcha-I hope this makes sense when I post it!) 😉

  15. Donalyn – thank you for this. Now you have not only inspired me as a teacher of Reading, but also of Writing. As a 5th grade teacher I have always struggled with how to teach writing and until this year, I never really thought that I have to write in order to teach it better. I would write little things in front of my class to guide their writing, but never really “wrote”. This Teachers Write is forcing me to see things differently and it’s, hopefully, going to make me a better teacher and writer.

  16. Thank you Donalyn! Participating in the Writing Project (Area3WP at UCDavis) changed my life too. As a kid, I never thought I would grow up to write books. The goal of my school writing assignments was to figure out what the teacher wanted, write it, and go outside to play. Now I realize I played with WORDS all along– in jokes and puns, notes to friends and song lyrics. But those didn’t seem like “writing” to me and I liked math because you we’re either right or wrong (and there was a formula to fix it). It’s so important to share the joy of words–and not just “teach” writing or reading. I’m excited that so many are re-discovering that joy in themselves.
    Happy Weekend to all!
    (Now to do the math…–haha)

  17. I start class with the Central Connecticut Writing Project Monday! I am looking forward to calling myself a Writing Project graduate at the end of July.

  18. Thank you for this article. It’s always inspirational reading about an educator who manages to motivate children to read, and then shares their strategies with others. I’ve put Donalyn’s books on my Goodreads “To Read” shelf!

  19. Such sage advice. Thanks Donalyn! I’ve now become the book lady at my school – the teacher who has all the books, and every time a new student comes and sees all of my books I think of you and how your book-a-day challenges, workshops, and wisdom in The Book Whisperer has helped me become that person. I read a lot of books before, but you and others challenged me to go higher and higher, and as a Green Mountain Writing Project Fellow two summers ago, I agree completely with your message. Miss you! See you in September!

  20. 2 great quotes to share with my writers and the 7 steps on how to critique writing. A fabulous Friday. 🙂

  21. Wow–all I can say is wow and that I am so fortunate, we are all so fortunate, so have you, Kate and Jo and Jen and Gae and Donalyn to teach and guide us. You are so generous with your time and talents. I read this at 5 am when I up feeding the baby and just felt so energized to get writing today. What great information in your article on critique, Kate, and such transparent sharing in Donalyn’s, post. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  22. WOW! What a way to start the day! Thank you, Donalyn, for the inspiration and the sound advice. I love to read (during the school year I only read middle grade novels – I teach sixth grade), and I try to pass along my love to my students. Your words really hit home.

    Quick story: This was a very special moment at the end of this school year. A student got each of my teammates and I a gift on the last day of school. She bought us each a book that she knew we didn’t have (she looked through our classroom libraries), but she thought that we would enjoy. She bought me Emily Windsnap #5 – I loved it. Her mom works in the school and usually she frowns upon gift giving (the whole favortism thing – it is difficult working in the same building that your children go to), but her daughter insisted on getting us books. Her mom could not say no to her getting us books. Her exact words – “Andy, at the beginning of the school year, she only opened a book if it was for an assignment, now she is reading for pleasure every night.” She read over thirty books during this school year. I am carrying this memory in my back pocket because I have played a small role into turning her into a reader.

    Thank you again for sharing. Good luck in the future. Happy reading, writing, and teaching!

  23. I especially found meaning in the comment, “I hate writing. I love having written.” Writing involves work, discipline and thought. This writing workshop helps with all of that.

  24. Thank you for sharing this Donalyn! I am always inspired by what you have to say and continue to share it with teachers. I cannot wait for your new book to come out!