By Amy Ellerman
Writing is a tool for thinking. This is something we tell students, but I wonder how often it is something we actually do.
When I think about the learning experiences that have challenged me the most, the experiences that have led to the most significant growth, they have all involved writing in some way. For me as a learner, writing IS a tool for thinking.
When I craft a blog post, for example, I almost always work my way to a new understanding through the process of writing. I’ll have some ideas to start with, but my true aha doesn’t come until I’m deep in the muck of drafting. When I blog in this way—to explore or grow an idea rather than to “explain” a fully formed idea to others, my own learning happens through the act of organizing words on the page.
As a learner, I’m making choices about what’s most compelling to explore. The motivation is internal—I’m trying to figure something out. Usually, I’m in pursuit of a question or challenge, something I’m wrestling with in my work with students or teachers. I seek out resources to support me in this quest—blogs, books, podcasts. This research is relevant. Necessary.
Having an authentic reason to articulate what I understand (or am trying to understand) challenges me to question, clarify, support, and reflect on my ideas. Making this thinking public, by publishing it on a blog, is a way to add my voice to the larger conversation. Ideally, I can get feedback from fellow educators. But even if I share a post and no one comments, I’m still contributing; I’m authentically participating in a kind of learning and collaboration that didn’t exist a decade ago.
A decade ago, I might have read a professional book and been inspired to talk about it with a teammate. I might have attended a class or conference and then tried out some new practices or strategies. There is something different about blogging as professional learning—because that is the best way I have found to describe what this process is: blogging as professional learning.
If you’re reading this, you are undoubtedly wise to the wide array of professional blogs on the internet, a plethora of resources for today’s educator. We all consume content on professional blogs; we know how valuable it can be to find an educator thinking and writing about what we’re trying to learn. But—and here’s what I’m trying to think through in this post—how many of us also regularly produce content? What might we learn if we did? What might we be able to contribute, and how might the act of contributing shift the energy we get from professional learning?
There are so many amazing examples of this type of blogging-to-learn available. Morgan Davis at itsaboutmakingspace.wordpress.com is a colleague and long-time mentor for me in this department; she blogs about instructional coaching and about her writing life. Sarah Zerwin at thepapergraders.org is someone I’ve only recently discovered; her series on a high school writing teacher’s journey to stop grading is fascinating and so authentic. Sometimes, like in the case of George Couros and his The Principal of Change blog, this type of blogging leads to the publication of a book; his spectacular Innovator’s Mindset came out in the past year. However, I would be curious to find out from these bloggers if a traditional book was ever the point. My guess would be that their need to take their thinking public was more about their own learning process than any specific end goal.
At a recent workshop, Scott McLeod, co-author of Different Schools for a Different World, said something that I can’t stop thinking about. He quoted Mitch Resnick, Director of the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab: “We wouldn’t consider someone literate if they could read but couldn’t write. Are we literate if we consume content online but don’t produce?” This is such a compelling way to think about how we define literacy in this digital age. It’s such a different mindset from expecting all creators to be “experts,” tapped by the publishing gods as worthy of being produced. It’s not the way the world works anymore.
With access to today’s tech tools, we can all be producers and collaborators. All voices matter—and that is so empowering. Producers learn from the process of creation. It’s not about learning something to some perfect level of mastery and then sharing it; it’s about leveraging the authentic process of writing to understand and collaborate as a vehicle for learning even more deeply. It’s about the thinking work that happens while we create; that’s where the magic happens.
Our students are natural producers, because the tools to create and share have always been at their fingertips. Their definition of “authentic” is quite different from our own. Students today expect to collaborate; they demand relevance. I would argue that this is something adult learners crave as well. Our traditional models and systems of professional learning just haven’t always tapped into this very human need.
We (all too often) expect to be “trained” or have learning that is provided for us. We attend classes where the role of learner is relatively passive. Sure, there might be turn and talks and small group discussions, but ultimately, participants aren’t in the lead of their own learning. As a result, there is a fair amount of compliance, as opposed to pure engagement.
This should ring familiar when we consider how learning experiences for students have often looked in the past—teacher designed, teacher controlled, with students as compliant participants.
We all know this has been changing.
Today’s educators have been challenged to up the ante for our students. We are shifting the cognitive load, designing learning experiences that are more relevant, rigorous, and engaging. Hopefully, by this point, we have seen evidence of the power of the shift in our our students’ learning. We have embraced the call for authentic learning because our young learners deserve it, to use an expression echoing through the Twitterverse, thanks to leaders like Todd Nesloney and Adam Welcome. (If you have not yet checked out their new book, Kids Deserve It! Pushing Boundaries and Challenging Conventional Thinking, you should add it to your TBR list.)
The question I would pose is: Isn’t authentic, compelling, relevant learning something teachers deserve as well? And if this is not the kind of professional learning being “provided” for us in our schools, what are some ways we might seek it out for ourselves?
I know when I’m deep in a blog post and I reach that place where I can see the sun, where my questions and ideas are coming together into an insight that’s clear and ready to share, it is so motivating. When it’s an understanding I’ve worked hard to reach, it feels different from simply finding and taking in information from another source. There is something electric about doing the thinking work of questioning, analyzing, synthesizing, reflecting. . . For me, engaging in this higher level thinking work is energy-giving. This is the kind of learning I’m desperate to talk and think about with my colleagues (and PLN)—not because I’m an expert who has figured it all out, but because I know the questions they will ask or the feedback they will share will continue to push me forward.
So, again, I would make a comparison to our students. Consider the palpable change in the energy in the room when our students are invested in something relevant and compelling. . . As we are challenging our students to engage in inquiry-based learning models that require higher levels of self-direction and proactivity, it makes sense for us to jump in beside them so we can understand what’s so hard about it. We need to experience this shift in learner ownership for ourselves. What might we learn from these students who crave taking the lead? What might we need to learn from these students in order to reach them? These shifts in how our students think and learn should inspire us to shift the ways we think and learn as adults.
Blogging as professional learning is just one of many ways for educators to take the lead of our own learning. I would argue that if we are going to shift to (or maintain) a side-by-side stance with our students, we need to understand what it feels like to be creators. We need to have empathy for the vulnerability it requires to put ideas out into the world for authentic audiences and to collaborate outside our own classrooms and buildings. Just like a teacher of writers should be a writer him or herself, a teacher of young people today should be engaged in professional conversation/learning in similar ways that we are expecting our students to engage.
I’m challenging myself in the coming year to engage in more blogging as professional learning. What might you challenge yourself to try?
Amy Ellerman is an Instructional Coach at Maple Grove Elementary in Golden, Colorado. She is passionate about teaching and learning in a workshop model—any content, but if she’s being honest, Writing Workshop will always be her favorite. Exploring authentic and innovative models of professional learning is another area of intense study at the moment. Amy blogs at www.smallwritersthinkingbig.blogspot.com and can be found on Twitter @sanderling12. Amy chaired the 2018 CCIRA Conference (Literacy Renaissance: Invention, Intention, and Close Study) and is currently President of CCIRA.