Greater Madison Writing Project

To educate as the practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn. That learning process comes easiest to those of us who teach who also believe that there is an aspect of our vocation that is sacred; who believe that our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students.”- bell hooks

The following is an excerpt from my essay when I applied to the GMWP Summer Institute:

In February 2011, the protests started. The profession I just chose, the profession that is often discussed and dissected, came under direct attack. While standing strong and fighting the good fight, I realized through hushed conversations that some of the enemies to the system were insiders. Many teachers I know from across the district- teachers with 10, 20, 30 years experience- told me to hit the ground running and not look back. In many ways the system is broken. At a time when we want our food local and sustainable, we are being told that our public education must be standardized on a national scale.

This year I am working under a full-time temporary contract teaching third grade at Lake View. This week I subjected my students to a district-imposed writing test to be graded by people who don’t know my students. They will read a story written by a student new to Lake View this year. He didn’t exactly answer the writing prompt; instead writing about getting a new bike. He works harder than most kids in my class, knows the definition of ‘onomatopoeia,’ has jumped 14 reading levels since September and written stories about a close encounter on his bike with a Pepsi truck, swimming in Devil’s Lake and consoling a friend who lost a goldfish. He is currently working on a report about volcanoes. Nothing about the score of his writing sample will reflect these achievements. This troubles me. I have honestly considered giving up and joining the ranks of young teachers who leave the teaching profession, but I don’t want to. I want to work to reform the system from within; with all its flaws, I believe in its inherent goodness. When one of my students writes, actually shows me what it feels like to be on a water slide, I throw my arms up in the air in jubilation.

My style of teaching is in the formative stages and perhaps I haven’t exactly answered the writing prompts, but I naturally return to my roots. Write what you know. Write what you care about. And this is what I hope to teach my students.


This summer I have had the opportunity to learn from innovative, dedicated and thought-provoking educators from around the city of Madison. I have had the opportunity to reflect on my own teaching and realize that I need to return to the roots of my educational philosophy that I planted as student of education: I must strive to teach students to be critical thinkers. No more telling them what to write.

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Self-reflecting: a process they teach you in college to realize how much you suck

Contrary to the sarcastic tone of the title of this post, I do believe that ‘self-reflection’ is an essential part of the teaching process. Good teachers know when something hasn’t worked and change things to try to have more success the next time around. As James Gray, founder of the National Writing Project, said in his book Teachers at the Center:

“Teachers establish their credibility by admitting their mistakes.”


My first year of teaching full-time in my own classroom was the 2011-2012 school year. For our writing time, I tried to establish a writer’s workshop. I created guidelines for the workshop and shared with them ‘the’ writing process (plan, write, revise/edit, publish). I told the students about how much I loved to write, yet I practically never wrote with them. I told the students that they could write about whatever they wanted, but when they inevitably said, “I don’t have anything to write about,” I would point to their mandated list and say, “How about you write about that trip to the water park?” thereby taking away their choice and spoon-feeding them a topic (I ended up with a lot of ‘water park’ stories that year). I read them mentor texts to spark ideas for writing, but I never asked the students to tell me the ideas they got from the book, instead I would tell them, “Now you can write a story about a time that you wanted something, but did not get it.” I taught them how to prewrite or plan their stories by using a prescribed worksheet, even though I prewrite by taking photographs, reading The New York Times or letting my mind wander when I go running. I told them to think about the person who would be reading their stories and always gave them time to share, but I never fully taught them to appreciate the concept of ‘audience,’ when having an (implied) audience for my writing has made all the difference. I told them it was important to publish their writing, but when they completed a final draft of a story I would stack it in a pile in the corner of the room, never to be seen or heard from again.

I was a whirlwind of contradictions.


And I was too busy trying to keep my head above water to even notice. Enter the Greater Madison Writing Project.


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Sun salutation for the mind

Time to write…

Please open your notebooks and start a list that answers the following question:


1) Where do writers get ideas?

Ready, go! You have one minute to write…

Shout-out your answers (in an orderly fashion, please!)


Next question:

2) What is prewriting?

One minute to answer in your notebook…

Shout-out your answers!


Okay, so…

3) Is there a difference between how you prewrite and how you tell your students to do it?

Think about this for a minute and then talk to the people around you for a couple of minutes…

Group share.


4) Finally, raise your hand and nod knowingly if you have ever heard a student say, “I have nothing to write about!”

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