There’s always been the notion — the myth — that writers write either from divine inspiration or from inborn talent that’s as rare as World Series titles for the Chicago Cubs.
And literary titans have done their share to make us believe writing’s not, and probably shouldn’t be, an egalitarian enterprise.
The Heart of Texas Writing Project (HTWP) exists to remind every second grader with a poet inside and high school teacher who wants to pen her memoirs that writing’s for everybody and good writers are made, not born.
HTWP, which inspires and instructs Texas students as well as their teachers, is part of the National Writing Project (NWP) and The University of Texas at Austin is one of 200 university project sites around the nation. It’s in the university’s College of Education and led by Dr. Randy Bomer, a professor of language and literacy studies in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction.
Working from the research-based conclusion that a teacher who writes will be a better writing teacher, HTWP offers monthly workshops and four-week invitational institutes to K-12 Texas teachers. In the workshops, the teachers learn best practices in writing instruction, review research, build a strong network of like-minded colleagues and, most important, produce writing of their own.
“It’s more common than not that people balk at writing,” says Bomer, a past president of the National Council of Teachers of English. “There’s an aura of mystique around it and the act of ‘being a writer’ has an air of exclusivity. Especially when we’re dealing with students, we need to remember that writing’s like everything else in that you’re probably not going to get better at it if you never do it.
“It’s no different than piano playing, cooking, sculpting, sewing, learning a new language or designing a building — you become more accomplished as you practice and you also tend to enjoy the process more and more as you, almost inevitably, gain confidence and fluency.”
Amber Futch, a writing teacher at Ojeda Middle School in Austin, met Bomer five years ago when she was working on her master’s degree in language and literacy in The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education. She was a pretty easy sell when it came to HTWP.
“I’ve always absolutely loved reading and I devoured books,” says Futch, “but I never saw myself in the role of writer, the one who does the creating. Dr. Bomer was the first person to actually make me stop and think about writing, to mark thoughts and understand how my brain works, to keep track of how I move through the world.
“Teaching’s something I do because I love it and I love learning about teaching. It was clear that I’d be better at my job if I gained some perspective on what my students were going through when they tried to write a memoir or a feature article. Plus, I don’t think non-writers realize how fun writing is and how much you learn about yourself as you try different genres and forms. It’s a shame that many people may have gone through their entire formal education without getting to experience, even once, the joy of writing.”
According to Futch, the monthly meetings of about 60 or 70 teachers are restorative as well as educational because they create a “writing community” in which you can have sustained, important conversations about writing over a long time. The teachers convene, learn new research-based teaching strategies and discuss what has worked for them and what hasn’t. They have an opportunity to reflect on their writing, share it and keep their own excitement for literature and writing alive.
Many of the monthly HTWP workshops are taught by authors of some of the top writing instruction books in the field of education, and each month a different aspect of writing or writing instruction is addressed.
If you flip through one of the books targeted at teachers of pre-kindergarten children and first-graders, it’s clear that many of the basic recommendations for breaking through writer’s block and tapping into your inner muse are the same whether you’re six or 66.
Writing experts assert that whatever the writer’s age, she will benefit from being a keen observer of her world, someone who watches, listens and reflects on experiences. She’ll value her thoughts and ideas about things, and she’ll be someone who reads or has a variety of good books read to her.
“Most of the writing guidance I’ve given to my students has ended up working beautifully for me as well,” says Futch. “To get started writing, which seems to be the hardest part, one of the first things that helps is to discard the belief that you have to, or necessarily can, write the perfect product the first time around.
“It’s pretty typical of students to want to write one draft of a piece and then be done with it. They feel the first draft should be flawless and that if it isn’t, the person who writes flawed first drafts isn’t meant to write, period. We work on getting rid of that misconception. The thing that ends up helping them grow as writers and be willing to revise and refine their work is the presence of a motivator that makes them want to do it for some reason other than that a teacher said so. Either the process of writing or what happens after the product’s finished needs to be inherently pleasurable and desirable for them in some way.”
According to Futch — and volumes of research on the topic — you’re more likely to bring inspiration, patience and energy to writing if the thing about which you’re writing has meaning to you, you’re offered some choice as far as topic and genre, and the writing has some purpose and a well-defined audience.
For example, if you’re a high school student who’s a cyclist and avidly follows cycling news, you’ll probably be more willing to try your hand at poetry if you’re allowed to write about cycling rather than the role of flying buttresses in British architecture. It may be even more motivating for you if you can choose free verse over sonnet and know that your poem’s going to be read aloud on stage at a fundraiser organized and attended by Lance Armstrong.
“We’ve had poetry slams in which the students have read their work to other students,” says Futch, “and they’ve had their writing published in various places. We cover multiple genres in class because you can’t write something you’ve never read. We immerse ourselves in everything from picture books to memoirs and essays, so there’s something to excite everyone, something that gives each of them a taste of success when they try it. We talk together. We reflect on what makes a good book or story good, and we learn to read like writers.
“It may seem like this approach isn’t rigorous enough to teach them to write well, but that’s not the case. They’re willing to work hard to be good writers when there’s purpose and interest, and they will be more likely to revise carefully and attend to matters of grammar and form that we’ve learned in class. Their writing in every class improves substantially if they get an opportunity to gain some confidence and lose the fear and dread.”
Futch’s assertion is supported by the fact that in nine independent studies conducted by local National Writing Project sites around the nation students who had teachers who participated in NWP exceeded students who didn’t in every measured attribute of writing.
The studies were conducted across a range of grade levels and in rural, urban and suburban school districts around the country. They included students with diverse ethnic, racial, economic and language backgrounds.
Since joining the program, Futch has gone through a four-week HTWP Invitational Summer Institute to become a teacher consultant. During this intensive training period, the 15 or so teachers who are selected to participate spend their mornings poring over the most current research on writing instruction and must produce an academic piece about some aspect of the research they’ve reviewed. They also must produce one sample of personal writing.
As a teacher consultant, Futch now goes out and presents workshops to Austin area teachers and students, and she’s recruited three of her Ojeda Middle School colleagues to the writing project.
“I experienced an immense philosophical change after joining the Heart of Texas Writing Project,” says Futch. “It may sound a little bit corny, but the program has made me the teacher that I am today.”