“Those Who Teach, Can” an essay by Jared Reck
I didn’t set out to be a writer.
When I first stepped into my middle-school classroom over twelve years ago, I had zero plans to write a novel—I never considered that I was even capable of writing one. I really just wanted to be a good teacher. And for me, that meant running a successful workshop—a classroom of creativity and laughter, one where students discover a love of writing and a love of books.
This is still my goal today.
I just didn’t realize, back then, how well it would work on me.
Headfirst into the Workshop
When I first started teaching, I knew what I wanted my classroom to be, even if I had no idea how to actually do it. My eighth-grade English teacher ran his class as a writing workshop. It was my favorite class—and he was my favorite teacher—of all time. When I went back for my teaching certification a year or so out of college, I knew I wanted to create that same environment for middle schoolers of my own. I wanted his classroom.
In my first teaching job, that is exactly what I got. I was hired as his long-term substitute while he was out on paternity leave, and for those first nine months in the classroom, I literally copied his lesson plans from the previous year, faked and flailed my way through running a workshop, and read and reread his dog-eared, marked-up copy of Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle. The next year, when I landed my first permanent position in another school, I bought my own copy of Atwell, started building a classroom library, and began running a workshop with new students.
A writing workshop, if you’re not familiar, has a few basic tenets: (1) Students have time to write in class every day. (2) Students have choice in what they write, from topic to genre to intended audience. (3) Students have a teacher to guide them along the way, to write with them and in front of them. So when I asked my students to write memoir, I wrote memoir right alongside them, modeling with my own writing throughout the process. If I wanted them to try poetry or essays or short fiction, I tried it, too, working together through the process for each genre that Atwell had culled from years of studying real authors.
A few years in, I finished my first fiction story with my students. It was about thirty pages long—easily the longest thing I’d written in my life. It was about this dorky eighth-grade boy in the orchestra who finds himself in in-school suspension. I loved the results, and I loved Atwell’s fiction-writing process, starting with the main character questionnaire—a simple brainstorming/character-development tool where you ask your main character fifteen to twenty questions, interview-style, and write down whatever he or she says—and moving through lessons on planning, scene selection, story structure, and creating a movie to run inside your readers’ heads.
The next school year, when my students and I began a new fiction-writing unit, I started the process again by creating a new character, using the same questionnaire, modeled in front of my students. And I loved him. He was funny and self-deprecating and socially awkward and really into basketball—he was Matt, my main character in A Short History of the Girl Next Door before there even was a girl next door. I ended up writing twenty or thirty pages of just Matt talking to me and answering my questions, much of which eventually ended up in the book.
I still write this way. I start all of my stories with a main character questionnaire. I finished writing my second novel this summer, a couple of weeks before the new school year started, and that book began the same way—with pages and pages of my main character just talking to me, but this time it was two main characters. And now, attempting to start book three in front of my current group of eighth graders, I’m partway through the same process for my newest character, Oscar.
It took me four years to write A Short History of the Girl Next Door—much of it in the summers between school years, which was then tinkered with in front of my students. And while it is the first novel I ever attempted, I had been writing with my students for a long time. My entire process as a writer has come from the genre studies run in my classroom workshop. So even though I never set out to be a writer, I know that it never would have happened at all if I hadn’t first become a teacher.
Immersed in Awesome Books
The writing workshop isn’t the only thing that got me to this point—not even close. On the first day of every school year, I kick off with my favorite writing quote, from Stephen King’s On Writing: “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”
At the same time that I was learning my writing process alongside my students, I was also growing into a fierce advocate for YA literature. Before I stepped foot in my first classroom, I knew almost nothing about YA—didn’t really even know it existed when I was a student. My first exposure was in a course I took for my certification, right before my first teaching job, where we read two titles that blew me away: Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak and Chris Crutcher’s Athletic Shorts. They were just the beginning.
The main tenets of my reading workshop parallel those of the writing workshop: (1) Students have time to read in class every day. (2) Students have freedom to choose what they read. (3) Students have a knowledgeable, well-read teacher to guide them to great authors and titles, preferably from the ever-growing shelves of their classroom library. Suddenly, I was reading between thirty and fifty titles every year, and my students and I fell in love with YA together—Chris Crutcher and Laurie Halse Anderson, John Green and Sara Zarr, A. S. King, Jordan Sonnenblick, Matt de la Peña, Sherman Alexie, to name just a few. I was inundated with brilliant YA authors. And, just like discovering my writing process with my students, without those hundreds of great books read and reread and shared in my classroom, there’s no way I’d be a writer today.
Read a lot. Write a lot. No way around these two things. I just found my way alongside my students.