National Writing Project

2009 Annual Meeting Highlights: General Session Writings

Date: December 14, 2009

Summary: Inspired by a Billy Collins poem "To My Patron," teachers at the NWP Annual Meeting were asked to write about what it takes to teach students to write. A long metrical poem or a short well-crafted argument? A set of colleagues to talk to? A blank mind? Model readings? Just a pen? Here is a sample of their responses.


Good Morning, Writers!

What it takes for me is a step in the door—the anticipation of seeing notebooks come out, the scramble for finding the right pencil, and the dog-shaped eraser, the swish of pants and skirts squirreling on the chairs, and backs bracing, alert eyes focusing.

"Good morning, writers!"

"Good morning, Mrs. G. What writing are we doing today?"

General Session Writing

Finding Something Right

It's all about catching them doing something right, finding it, unearthing it if necessary—a lyrical phrase, an exploded moment or a topic that they truly care about, then polishing it, holding it up to the light for examination—"Love what you did! Did you see that? You're the kind of writer who..." Then sharing it with other writers—"one thing Johnny tried..."

A Skewed Perspective

I need a skewed perspective—a twist, an inkling. I need support whether that is from the voice next door to the bones that help me hold my tool to the palm and elbow holding up my often tired head. I need freedom and friends; I need idiosyncrasies and irritations. I need meditations and spurs of the moment. I need all and nothing intermingled yet separate. I need NWP.

Time, Time, Time

A love of students and a passion for the power of the written word is essential for a teacher of writing. In order to make it happen all teachers need the gift of time. Time for students to explore, to talk, to laugh, to cry, to think, to experiment, to place, and to set words on paper and discover what they have to say to the world.

General Session Writing

I Must Be a Writer

One lesson I learned from my writing project experiences regarding the teaching of writing is that I must be a writer as well as a teacher of writing. There is something powerful about allowing my students to catch me in the act—the act of writing! I recall the struggles I had with introducing my students to journal writing. I did not meet with success until I brought my journal with me to my classroom and actually wrote entries with them during journal time. During sharing, many of the students were amazed when I actually shared what I had written.

The moral of the story: "Practice what you preach!"

A Love Affair with Words

To be a teacher of writing means having a love affair with words and their sweetness as they collect in tumbled enthusiasm to paint a formerly blank page. This then is the gift for the children, for the reluctant student—a gift not unlike spun cotton candy proffered from your understanding that no one can really refuse—an offering—to taste, to try.


If they would just trust me
Take their common units and
Daily formative assessments and
Essential questions
That are never
The essential question
And leave me alone
To learn and love
My students
To celebrate their lives
And experiences
To show them how to rewrite their life scripts
I could teach writing

General Session Writing


Colleagues to talk to is what I need to teach writing—friends who love words, who understand allusions to Heart of Darkness, who toil alongside me and celebrate a student writer who, for perhaps the first and only time in his life, says he has a story he needs to tell and is proud of the way he tells it. Colleagues help me remember these students, hear these voices, and understand that allusions to the classics are not the most important feature of a literate person.

The Safety That Allows for Risk

I need joy that comes from interacting with young people. I need the feeling of the group opening up to what I am offering—the chance for them to say something, to have it be heard. I need the safety that allows for risk. I need the feeling that someone has my back even if they never need to—that I am supported so that I can offer that to my students as well. I need space to think, and the opportunity to be quiet with my students—and then time and space built in for us to laugh together, to read aloud, to enjoy and tease each other.

Students, Only a Few

Students, only a few. A comfortable setting not physically but spiritually. A soul connecting to a soul. A "have you considered," "this is good," "what is your focus," "who is your audience." I like the thread you weave but I like more the thread that connects us.

Rooms Full of Students

Hameed, who blushes and ducks his head when I praise him.

Roseanna, whose son has been ill with a problematic kidney and has missed the past couple of days.

Jovan, who is taking the course for his last chance—third time's the charm?

Kenneth, who can't decide if he wants to stay in school or join the Army—his father, a sniper, served three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Erica, whose hair is sometimes black, sometimes red.

Andrew, wheelchair bound and deaf, who is the first student to get my jokes, every time, and might be the best writer in the class.

Rooms full of them. They tell me what they want; I try to give them what they need. We write together.

We don’t enter into writing without a reason, a necessity, a right now.


We need provocation—we don't enter into writing without a reason, a necessity, a right now.

That's what I attempt to create—the exigency for which writing is the immediate and natural—and necessary—response.

This sounds so noble—but it isn't—it's hard to find issues and reasons that high schoolers can't wait to tackle but that's that. Writing is never done—it's just due.


It does not matter what school you are at. It does not matter what students you have. If you do not have passion and an intrinsic love for what you are doing, you don't have anything. I could be at the best school with the best students with supportive parents and a supportive administration, but if I don't love what I am doing and am not constantly growing as an educator, I will never survive in this profession.

General Session Writing

Relationships, Relevance, Rigor

To borrow from the words of an Ed. Leadership article read recently, I think I need the 3 r's—relationships, relevance and rigor (in that order). I must be able to connect with my kiddos as people first. It is then that I must establish the relevance of my "agenda" to their lives and infuse rigor. I also need space and time, notebooks and great books. I don't need many material things. It is the little things that mean most.

The Items That Can Be Left Out

How to Make a Writer. . . .
Tell me, tell me won't you please
I really need to know
What are the items that I need
To help a writer grow?
A desk, a chair
A hardened stare
A cabinet holding files?
A variety of styles!
How bout scissors, oh, and rulers,
Staplers, boards, and tacks?
Pages upon pages of
The truest, deepest facts!
Perhaps a 3-hole puncher
Or a binder, big and thick,
A lovely school with halls and floors
Assembled brick by brick.
All these items that I've named
Can be left out, oh yes!
I have no doubt
That I can make
A writer out of less!
This pot of school materials
Can all be left behind
I only need a child
With a sharp, creative mind!


It is the mood. The implicit connection made between "self" and "other"—"teacher" and "student"—"human" and "human." And once this connection is made, we need nothing—no computers, no fancy writing notebooks—just a sheer desire to share and communicate, starting with the tips of the dulled pencil, point to paper, tongue to air, our lives validated in the wide eyes of each other.

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