With this book, I am one happy camper! Picture is my own.
It is no secret that I admire the teachings of Tom Romano. It all started when we were handed an excerpt from Clearing the Way: Working with Teenage Writers that chronicled Romano’s work with a student by the name of Dwayne. As Romano worked with him, Dwayne wrote and then continually revised three separate pieces of writing. At one point, Dwayne earned an A- on his story. The thing is, Dwayne struggled with writing. However, it was not necessarily Dwayne that drew me in. It was the way Romano assessed Dwayne. With a short paragraph of narrative feedback, Romano would praise the writerly techniques that Dwayne was implementing in his work. At the end of each paragraph, Romano would write one or two concepts that Dwayne needed to work on. Only at the end would he assign a letter grade. This inspired me because I read it at a time that I was struggling to reconcile encouraging budding student writers with fulfilling the accountability requirements imposed upon me. From then on out I was hooked.
Now, I have had the opportunity to read the whole book! Like with Tom’s session at NCTE, it was everything I wanted it to be and more. Clearing the Way: Working with Teenage Writers is similar to The Greatest Catch: A Life in Teaching by Penny Kittle in the sense that each chapter of Tom’s chronicles experiences he has had as a teacher—many of which also involve inspiring anecdotes about his students—yet within each story there is a larger purpose. Like my last professional development blog post, I’m going to write about one of my favorite chapters (aside from the one I already talked about in the introduction!) that I also feel is extremely applicable to this class.
It is entitled “Please Write.” He begins this section by describing an experience he had with a fellow colleague. An editorial was published in a journal that urged teachers to write. Tom’s co-worker was outraged. Tom thoughtfully engaged the man, wondering aloud that perhaps the author of the editorial simply thought that teachers will better understand what student writers go through if they take part in the craft themselves. The man’s reply? “I know what students go through,” he said. “I was once a student” (Romano 37). And therein lies the problem. In his reflection of the situation, Tom said “He no longer saw himself as a student, as a curious learner. Comfortable and static in his ‘wisdoom,’ he studied neither his students nor his profession” (Romano 37). I love that phrase—wisdoom—but its true. If we are not engaged with what we are teaching, how relevant is our wisdom? Answer: it isn’t. It is doomed.
Yet there is a solution, just as the author of the editorial suggested. Teachers need to write. Tom takes it a step further, and states that teachers need to write with their students. However, his idea of writing with students isn’t simply scribbling in a notebook alongside them during a quick write exercise (although this is important too!). No, after almost a decade of teaching high school English Tom finally realized that teachers need to share all stages of their writing with students. Showing students journal entries, brainstorms, rough drafts, and polished pieces helps them to see the writing process as it lives and breathes within us. When Tom started to do this, “Truth replaced hocus-pocus. It is human beings who create those first words, false starts, scratched-out lines, and messy pages that eventually become polished writings published in books and magazines. And those human beings are not so unlike the freshmen in your final class of the day” (Romano 41).
Though at times we like to pretend that we are (sometimes out of self-preservation), teachers are not perfect. 99.99% of the time we do not pop out a piece of writing that is “ready to go.” Rather it takes time and effort, just like we are asking our students to devote. By allowing them to see that our pieces go through 3, 4, 7 drafts it will help them be more willing to do the same thing. As the old adage goes, practice what you preach.
However, Tom goes on to make a distinction that I think is important for us to heed. He explains, “For a portion of the silent writing time I give my students I need to complete part of my teaching work . . . [And] I also need a large chunk of time to circulate through the classroom, conferencing with students about their writing. Anyone who chides teachers for attending to other matters while their students write needs to spend an entire year teaching a full load in a secondary school” (Romano 48). My personal opinion on this is that there needs to be a balance between time management and prioritization. It is an undisputed fact that there are simply not enough hours in a teacher’s day. As a result, it is necessary to complete work whenever possible in order for us to get it all done. What is crucial is that we do not let this load make writing seem unimportant. Though we will need to work, we also need to let our students know that writing and reading are priorities. If they see how much we care, it will help them care too.
Okay… this post is almost a thousand words long. Though I am running out of space, I recommend this book to all English teachers—aspiring and current! What I have shared here is only one segment of a text that holds profound truths on every page. You don’t have to enjoy Tom Romano’s writing as much as me to learn from this. Even if you don’t read this particular book, I encourage each of you to read, and then write. We should not be like the teacher who no longer seeks knowledge within his profession. Instead we need to learn from others as much and as often as we can. Turn “wisdoom” into a “wisboon” of hope. 😊
Romano, Tom. Clearing the Way: Working with Teenage Writers. Heinemann, 1987.