Teachers as Writers

When I was a kid, my favorite thing about the beginning of a new school year was going back-to-school shopping with my family. We’d go to a store like Sears and my siblings and I would comb the aisles looking for the perfect outfit for the first day. That first day ensemble had to be just right. With the right outfit, the right haircut, the right shoes, a limitless world of possibilities spread out before me. It became almost a superstition, the equivalent of saying “Rabbit rabbit” on New Year’s Day. 

Now, as a teacher, no careful thought goes into picking my first day outfit. Sadly, no careful thought goes into picking any of my outfits. With the exception of a brief foray with blazers--an experiment that ended after my colleagues began calling me The Blaze--I’ve settled into a rumpled professor look: jeans, collared shirt, the occasional sweater. 

Most of my superstitions about first days have gone out the window, tossed along with all of my other outdated beliefs, things like Santa Claus, psychics, spirit guides, and of course, the dream of becoming the next Neil Peart. 

Now, first days are a time to set goals. God, that sounds so adult. Boring. Like I’m about to start talking about the importance of saving for retirement--which I’m extremely unqualified to do. Even though I’ve taught economics for the past five years, the world of personal savings continues to remain a mystery to me. So instead of focusing on my financial health and well-being, I’ve decided to blog about my life as a history teacher and writer, a sometimes serendipitous, oftentimes challenging, yet always exciting overlapping of identities. 

One of my major goals this year is to get my students to write more. I especially love this goal because it also helps me with a personal goal: to write more myself. After participating in the Connecticut Writing Project this past summer, I’ve realized that my two identities don’t have to be so separate. That to be a good teacher of writing you have to write alongside your students. Now that’s something I can do. 

Last year, I applied to be the Learning Facilitator of my house at Greenwich High School (GHS is divided into five houses, sort of like an American Hogwarts). Basically, I’ve become the point person in my house for the seven other Social Studies teachers, a person they can ask questions and air grievances. I’ve also decided that I want to use my tremendous new power--yes, that’s sarcasm--to promote the idea of teachers as writers. My first act as LF was to give each teacher in my house a writer’s notebook along with a letter I wrote about my experience with the Connecticut Writing Project and what I learned about engaging students through different writing tasks (with ideas from Kelly Gallagher’s incredible book Write Like This). No longer a history teacher or a writer, I’ve now become a teater. Or maybe a wricher

Unfortunately, both sound like insults. 

Check out the letter below and expect a post each week about my journey trying to balance my two identities, including information about my writing process, teaching ideas, and everything in between.

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Dear Colleagues, 

I’m engaging in the authentic task of writing you a letter. The purpose of the letter is to express how excited I am to work with each of you this upcoming year and to reflect on some of the major takeaways from my summer. 

First off, I’d like to inform and explain a little bit about the Connecticut Writing Project. If you haven’t done so already, I’d encourage you to apply at some point. It’s five weeks long and each week is focused on teaching a specific type of writing. More importantly, it’s based on the idea that to be an effective teacher of writing, you must also become a writer yourself. Not necessarily novels per se--though if you have an idea, you should go for it--but as the most experienced writer in your classroom, you should be modeling the moves and habits you expect from your students. 

If I were to evaluate and judge my time with CWP, I’d undoubtedly give it five stars. My five weeks there reminded me how creative we can be when it comes to teaching writing, and beyond that, Social Studies in general. Whether that means throwing an egg on the floor to teach perspective or writing acrostic poems about figures from history, there’s no end to the ways we can make writing engaging and interesting for our students. CWP showed me the power of teaching by doing, and sometimes that means sitting down and scribbling in your writer’s notebook alongside your students. 

Beyond the five weeks in the institute, it’s given me the tools to continue to inquire and explore new ideas and ways of teaching. From Kelly Gallagher’s book Write Like This to Kelly Chandler-Olcott’s A Good Fit for All Kids (and all the Kellys in between), I’m excited to continue exploring resources to better myself as a teacher. I’d love to foster a culture of exploration in Cantor House. If you find a great article about teaching, share it. If you tried a new lesson that worked really well, share it. If you have an idea for a project, share it. I want Cantor House to become known for pushing the boundaries of how we teach Social Studies--and have fun while doing it! 

If I had to analyze and interpret why my summer was so meaningful, I’d start first with the personal side. I got married and have successfully stayed married for the past month. I also had a transformative experience with CWP where I was able to rethink my approach to writing and try a lot of new genres, including poetry, which I hadn’t written in years. I went to Quebec City, Mystic, Disney World, and for each of the trips spent most of the time wondering what my cats were doing. In other words, I did a lot--or at least what felt like a lot for someone who’s used to sitting at their computer--and I think it’s the collective experience of everything that’s made me feel so excited about this upcoming school year. I couldn’t be happier to be part of a community where ideas and thinking are valued. Where we’re valued. 

In Social Studies, we ask kids to debate and argue a lot. We tell them to take stands and propose solutions. My stand is less about what we teach and more about how we think about teaching. This year, let’s push ourselves out of our comfort zones. Let’s try new things. Let’s take risks. Let’s share our successes and failures with one another. In that spirit, I’m including a couple of resources to start a conversation. In addition to your writer’s notebook, you’ll find a chart explaining the different types of writing found in Write Like This (which also, coincidentally, conforms to the structure of this letter: express and reflect, inform and explain, evaluate and judge, inquire and explore, analyze and interpret, and take a stand/propose solutions). You’ll also find an excerpt about the importance of the writer’s notebook taken from Kelly Chandler-Olcott’s A Good Fit for All Kids. I look forward to discussing these and other articles/ideas with you throughout the school year. 

If you need anything at all this year--to talk through a lesson, discuss a concern, grab an acai bowl--please just let me know. 


Michael Belanger