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A Risky Business          

Mary Osborne is one of my earliest and most influential educational mentors. She influenced the way I taught writing to my fourth graders from my very first year of teaching and beyond. She influenced my passion and love for the work, and always directed me to the very best educators (she included me on yearly dinners with her close friend Don Graves—Donald Graves! I had dinner with him. He talked with me about running 7 miles a day. To little old me!). She influenced the way to be around teachers—love and honor all of them, and always try to walk in their shoes. When I left Pinellas County ten years ago, the hardest part about leaving was saying goodbye to Mary. There isn’t a day that goes by in my work that Mary isn’t a part of my words, a part of my actions, a part of my thinking…her presence is constant. So you can imagine the joy and honor I have in sharing this post from the educator to whom I owe everything. Enjoy, readers. Let Mary impact you, too. She is a gift.            


When my daughter Maggie was three years old, she began taking ballet lessons. At about age five, she took swimming lessons in a friend’s pool. Next came cheerleading. That lasted the longest, almost six years. At age sixteen, she became engrossed with her acoustic guitar. Each time my daughter ventured into some new passion she was fortunate to have instructors or teachers or coaches who were willing to take risks. You see in each instance whether ballet or swimming or cheerleading or guitar lessons the teacher actually modeled that skill for the students. This takes bravery and so could be considered risky business.


The first time I felt at risk was when I attended Writers Camp in 1983. I hadn’t written like that since high school and even then I didn’t exactly write the way we did at camp. In high school writing seemed more technical somehow–more focused on form and correctness than on ideas and personal meaning. At camp the first priority was choosing a topic we cared about. That left us vulnerable. It put us at risk. If we truly wrote about subjects close to our hearts, colleagues we barely knew would become familiar with us at a rapid pace. And then we were told that this behavior wasn’t just for camp but in fact was a behavior we should adopt in our daily lives in the classroom–in our classrooms with our students. Not only did this mean opening our true selves to our students but it also meant revealing to them our weaknesses as writers. Huge risk.


In her book, The Writing Workshop: Working Through the Hard Parts (And They’re All Hard Parts) Katie Wood Ray says, “I believe that to set the best tone in our writing workshops, then, our students need to see us as people who write, just as we see them in that same way. Now take heart. It is not at all necessary that they see us as great writers. It is fine for them to see us struggle as writers, to see us write things that make us (and them) say, ‘Oh my, that’s awful!’ What is so much more important than that we be great writers is that our students see us as people who think writing is a worthwhile thing to do, as people who believe in the effort it takes to write things that really matter.” I know Katie’s words speak the truth, but that doesn’t lessen the risk.
One day a teacher I had modeled a lesson for commented, “Some of the kids were not writing while you had your back turned during conferring.” I reassured him this was not a problem, but rather it was a behavior writers of all ages exhibit. It’s called thinking. I realize this may not have been completely true for all of those students that day but I can pretty much guarantee it was true for one or two of them. I told him that when students finish their stories and proclaim, “I’m done,” what they really mean to say is, “I don’t know what else to do.” Students have to be taught through mini lessons and conferences those things writers do when they too are done getting their thoughts onto paper. The problem begins here for teachers who don’t write themselves. How can they know what writers really experience if they never put their own thoughts to paper? This teacher couldn’t understand why some students weren’t writing that day, but teachers who do write know that they sometimes have long gaps in the physical act of writing because they are thinking about what they’ll say or do next.


The most important thing teachers can do for themselves and for their students is to write. Writing with students creates a supportive tone in the classroom. Composition researchers and practitioners have generally agreed that, as effective “facilitators” in the writing process classroom, writing teachers need to engage in writing activities themselves for two important reasons. First, as teachers of writing, they should practice what they preach. Second, when teachers really do write with their students, they develop better insights into the challenges and rewards their student writers face. Teachers must write in order to inspire their students to write. Students learn from watching. In addition, when teachers show their excitement about writing and write alongside their students, students realize and react to that energy in positive ways. It has been said that there is no more powerful way to inspire our student writers. However, most teachers feel inadequate themselves as writers.


Many years ago, a Writers Camp teacher reflected, “Never have I expressed a passion for writing. My commitment dealt with reading others’ writing, “teaching writing’, and pretending to write when my students write. Now, I ask myself how it is possible to get anything out of another’s writing when I have never experienced real writing? How in the world could I have taught writing all these years when I never wrote myself? Most importantly, what did I learn from pretending to write? Reflection on my prior commitments finds emptiness, shallowness, absurdity. ‘Snippets’ of writing strategies have guided my teaching. These fragments developed from a thirst to find a better way to help the young writer who also hated the process. I now know that personal real writing is invaluable to the teacher. Students imitate their role models. Effective teaching stems from effective modeling. Teachers can’t model what they don’t do.”


Downhill skiing, bungee jumping, and most certainly sky diving can all be considered risky business, but there is no riskier business for anyone, especially a teacher, than putting yourself on the page in the fragile form of words–however the brave teachers who do, know the rewards.


By Mary Osborne

Instructional Staff Developer

Pinellas County Schools, Florida



2 responses »

  1. Matthew Woodward

    Wow! Even though I have mentioned to teachers that we should go watch sports coaches and then come back and imitate them, this article still had me reflecting on just how powerful writing can be. I know I have not given feedback to teachers about it, so I have not made it seem important. Thank you Mary for sharing this article.


    • Mary Osborne

      Thank you, Matthew. It is always rewarding to know that your words have impacted someone else. I appreciate your taking the time to write. Mary



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