Writing Grows Our Humanity

I recently had the pleasure of joining some middle and high school ELA teachers at the OCTELA conference. OCTELA stands for the Ohio Council of Teachers of English Language Arts.

I was particularly enthralled by the keynote speaker, author, Jasmine Warga. She talked about the importance of asking big questions about the world. She noted two questions that she thinks it’s important for us to ask ourselves, “What were the books that changed you as a kid? That encouraged you to ask big questions of the world?”

I love the idea of encouraging learners to ask big questions of the world. My friend, Kristi Otten, said something that really stuck with me recently. She said, “Today’s generation of students is perhaps the most empathetic generation yet.” I do feel that from our students. I find them to be deeply caring and interested in making a difference in the world. Since they are our future, I take very seriously the responsibility we have as educators to develop their skills and nourish their unique gifts, so they can amplify their impact.

Reading and writing are not only important skills for the future. They are pathways to growing empathy, curiosity, and healing. Awhile back, I heard Beth Rimer, Director of the Ohio Writing Project, talk about writing as healing which led to me ask myself about the role writing has played in my own healing.

Writing occurs in many forms and will continue to evolve with emerging technology, but one thing remains the same: the importance of writing as a process over product.

Often when we think of writing, we think of finished products that are shared with others as a means of communicating, educating, and influencing. What we often miss about writing is how critical writing is as a means of reflection and shaping the way we see ourselves and the world. I love this quote that Jasmine Warga shared from George Saunders, “Writing makes me a better human.”

I feel that. Writing makes me a better human and educator. Creating space for my thinking and for reflection allows me to uncover what I believe, knowing and naming what I believe holds me accountable for living out those beliefs in my life and work. Especially when I name those beliefs here on my blog for an authentic audience.

Often after I read something, engage with others, or engage with new information, it’s important for me to take a step back to really examine what I think of this new stimulus, and how it challenges or affirms previously held beliefs. An important question we can ask others and ourselves in the writing process is, “How do you know that?” It is critical that we become not only critical consumers of other people’s messages and their work but of our own thinking and firmly held beliefs.

As Adam Grant writes in his book Think Again, “A hallmark of wisdom is knowing when it’s time to abandon some of your most treasured tools—and some of the most cherished parts of your identity.” I think there are some of us who are afraid to share our thinking, work, and writing with others out of fear that one day we will belief something contrary and others will be judge us for our old thinking. But isn’t that part of being human? And isn’t that what the world needs – more people modeling what it looks like to be deeply human and learning in front of others?

The world doesn’t need more knowers. The world needs more genuine curiosity. This includes being genuinely curious about the thoughts and feelings of others while also holding space for ourselves. Which brings me back to writing as healing. Through the writing process, I’ve spent more time in my own stories. The story about my dad passing has given me insight into why I struggle with worrying about not having enough of something. As I’ve mentioned to those familiar with the story of my dad’s passing, my first question for my mom was, “Will we have enough food to eat?” Through writing about stories of teachers who deeply impacted me, I’ve learned more about the kind of educator I want to be. After writing about different leadership experiences that have made me feel like I can expand and those which have made me feel small, I’ve unearthed small moves that can inspire and empower others to reach their fullest potential.

When we talk about our Portraits of a Graduate or our big beautiful dreams for our school districts which are often laid out in lengthy strategic plans, it’s easy to lose sight of some of the simple moves that when made consistently and with intentionality can prepare learners (adults and students alike) to ask big questions of the world and themselves, so they can be the change we all wish to see.

Here are a few that are on my mind:

Good Writing is Good Thinking

I find that some of the best dialogues start with a conversation with ourselves. Inviting people to write for a few minutes in response to a reading or prompt allows them to examine their own thinking before sharing with others. The quality of the dialogue often deepens when we make space for good thinking before good sharing.

We Can Not Grade All Writing

If we are engaging in these types of exercises in the classroom, our students will be doing quite a bit of writing. Sure, it’s sprint style, informal writing, but it’s writing nonetheless. Which is glorious! We need to unleash ourselves from thinking that everything students produce in the classroom needs to be graded. Being measured on everything we try and tinker with in the classroom can be deflating. If we write to uncover what we think, then we are writing as a means to figure out. Not all writing is a finished product or intended or broader audiences. If we can name for students that this kind of informal writing can improve their thinking, the way they contribute to classroom conversations, and the quality of the more formal writing they produce, it encourages students to continue with those good writing habits. If we can grade everything our students write in the classroom, that may be indication that they are not writing enough.

The More We Write, The Better We Get

The more we write, the better we become at writing. As our writing become stronger, our thinking becomes more clear, and when we are more clear, we can more thoughtfully impact others in positive and meaningful ways. It’s not just about becoming better at writing, it’s about becoming better humans and leaders too. There is such as thing as writing fatigue which is why we should be thoughtful about how much writing we and our students are doing in one sitting. We can also shake up the formats and ways in which we utilize writing in the classroom, but it’s amazing how much we can grow as writers and thinkers when we take the time to reflect through writing.

My hope for all of us is that we are brave enough to ask big questions of ourselves and the world. As Adam Grant says, “We laugh at people who still use Windows 95, yet we still cling to the opinions we formed in 1995.”

Writing is a great strategy for growing our thinking and humanity.

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