The Teacher-Writer: Creating Writing Groups for Personal and Professional Growth
reviewed by Rebecca Woodard - March 27, 2017
The Teacher-Writer: Creating Writing Groups for Personal and Professional Growth
Christine M. Dawson
Teachers College Press, New York
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What happens when we reposition writing in teachers lives and foreground creativity and play? What happens when we engage in writing as a social and interactive endeavor? What might we gain when we focus less on how to be a writer and instead consider how we might purposefully do writingin whatever ways it works in our lives? (p. 11)
Author Christine M. Dawson sets the stage for an in-depth inquiry into teacher writing by posing these questions in The Teacher-Writer: Creating Writing Groups for Personal and Professional Growth. Her intimate portrayal of how five teachers began an online writing group they have sustained for over eight years offers both theoretical and practical implications for understanding teacher-writers. We see Christine (the author), Karen, Jillian, Christina, and Nell (Christines peers) move from teacher-educator and teacher-candidates who worked together in literacy methods courses to K-16 teachers in various contexts across different states. During their first year together as a writing group, they talk and write for personal and professional purposes. However, these are not just stories of texts being composed. They are stories of lives and identities being invented, as Dawson calls it, drawing from LeFevre (1987) and Prior (2004). They are stories of five women figuring out and laying claim to who they are and who they want to be. At its heart, this volume explores how the act of composing together has a great deal of significance on teachers lives.
Chapter One and Chapter Two make the case for teachers engaging in writing and the study of teacher-writers. Dawson situates this work in a field of literature that has identified benefits for teacher-writers such as pedagogical opportunities (Atwell, 1998; Calkin, 1986; Kittle, 2008; Murray, 1968) and increased participation in the field (Robbins et al., 2006; Whitney et al., 2012). Teacher-writers also face significant challenges like a lack of time and infrastructure to support writing opportunities (Blau, 1999; Gere, 1980; Jost, 1990). The author then describes how she invited a group of pre-service teachers she had taught for two years to join her in a writing group after graduation. She chronicles how these five women navigated technologies over time by establishing roles and routines as they began their writing group.
The bulk of this volume (from the third chapter to the seventh chapter) offers portraits of the writing group in action during its first year. Chapter Three closely examines one representative meeting from start to finish. Chapter Four and Chapter Five highlight strategies the women use to make space for writing in their lives. Descriptions include how they find ideas for writing, how they sustain writing over time, and how they claim professional work as being a valid writing project. Chapter Six and Chapter Seven focus on the ways these women use writing and their writing group time to compose their identities and interactions. Finally, Chapter Eight extends the themes beyond the first year of writing featured in the previous chapters. Karens words nicely summarize the teachers reflections on their experience: [i]t was . . . a nice chance to shift to think about myself as a writer, but to also think about myself as . . . a more complicated human being than just a teacher (p. 113).
As a teacher and a woman, many of these womens stories will stick with me. Some of the stories highlight the work of teaching, like Christina battling the monster that threatened to devour her as a first year teacher or Karen making light of the high-pressure communications that took place in her school through parody writing. Other stories showcase their out-of-school lives, like Nell giving a wedding toast for her sister or Christine memorializing her aunt with a found poem. Some stories were deeply personal, like Jillian moving from critique of her body as a young woman to acceptance and self-love as a mother and adult. It matters that the narratives included in The Teacher-Writer are womens stories. It is also important that they are the stories of new teachers who often struggle with the precariousness (p. 44) of teaching. These are the voices of the teaching profession. Unfortunately, these are also narratives that are too often left out of professional and policy conversations. They are particularly important to hear when the current political tides seem intent on dismantling public education. I am thankful for Dawsons advocacy, generosity, and partnership with these teachers to legitimize our everyday writings, relationships, identities, and ways of being in the world (see Yagelski, 2011).
It also matters that all of these women are presumably white, able-bodied, cisgendered, and heterosexual. While this mirrors much of the teaching population in the U.S., I believe that adding the stories of more diverse teacher-writers will meaningfully extend Dawsons analysis in the future. I hope that those of us who research writing will take up this charge to intentionally include narratives of intersectionality and the composing experiences of historically marginalized groups (e.g., Alsup, 2006; Baker-Bell, Stanbrough, & Everett, 2017; Muhammad, 2015).
Although it is not the focus of the book, I think this writing group is also a testament to different ways that we might re-envision the transition from pre-service to in-service teaching. Christines evolving relationships with her students-turned-peers reconfigures traditional boundaries between teacher-candidates and teacher-educators. Dawsons lengthy engagement with her group as a co-participant also offers a compelling instance of induction work that seems to have meaningfully impacted these teachers lives.
The volumes practical advice will resonate with all types of teacher-writers, ranging from National Writing Project Summer Institute participants looking to sustain writing throughout the school year to school administrators hoping to foster writing in their school communities. In particular, I appreciate Dawson's advice for prioritizing and building relationships; being generous in our understanding of what counts as writing; acknowledging the importance of talk in developing relationships, ideas, and writing; and allowing ideas to percolate over time so that we can follow our writing energy. Certainly, there are lessons to be learned for teaching writing here, tooa topic I hope Dawson and her fellow teacher-writers will write more about in the future.
Dawsons The Teacher-Writer contributes important insights concerning how writing matters for teachers. It takes on the ways the literature documents challenges for teacher-writers, including a lack of time and an insufficient infrastructure for writing opportunities (Blau, 1999; Gere, 1989; Jost, 1990), and offers invaluable advice for educators interested in starting and sustaining writing groups.
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