This year I will be teaching writing for basically the first time. (If I’ve taught writing in the past, it was within the 30 minutes I “pushed in” to service special education students in Chicago, which meant little more than conferencing with a student or two about their writing.) Frankly speaking, I just don’t know how to teach writing. I don’t know how to help students feel interested in telling their stories and generating ideas. I don’t know how to help students craft their stories in different ways. I don’t know how to make student writing theirs.
When I was a kid, I hated writing in class. I would typically be the last one to hand in a writing piece because I didn’t know what to write. I hated when teachers pushed different ways of writing, like creating a hook, making a plot twist in a story, and writing an interesting ending. I hated having to write in different ways and forms, and I hated the mechanical aspect of revising and editing my writing. While my writing was often good, I hated the writing process that was pushed on me- I just wanted to write and have it done with. Oftentimes even now, I’ll type and publish my first drafts of writing.
Then, all of a sudden, when writing wasn’t a school assignment, I just…wrote. Growing up in Chinatown, Manhattan, I had so much to say but didn’t know who to say it to or how to say it. I would watch what to say to my new middle school friends because I had been teased in elementary school and, you know, girls can be mean in middle school. I couldn’t really articulate my thoughts and feelings to my parents, who spoke no English- my grasp of Cantonese was not good enough (and still not good enough) to convey the depth of my thoughts.
So writing became my way of communication. The first medium was my Xanga blog (how ancient are we?). I would give my username to my middle school friends who I wanted to read it, and at some point we were all “friends” on Xanga. I wrote sentences at first, silly ones, and enjoyed the fun comments and “eProps” my friends would give. Then I’d write a paragraph, then paragraphs. By the time I got to high school, I was writing in lengths that I enjoyed. It got easier to write essays in high school, and then at Columbia, where I’d have a paper due practically once a week. By the time I left college, I shared posts on Facebook and was ready to write my students’ individualized education plans (IEPs) in depths that expressed who my students were as people.
I found myself revisiting entries from years ago to reflect on how I’d grown as a person. How I enjoyed wandering the streets of SoHo as a kid, looking at the new fashions, and looking for sales to be as trendy as I could be. How I’d told someone I liked them for the first time, and, when rejected, knew I was just proud of being brave. How I was trying something new, and being bold, and loving my friends.
I also found that, after some point, I was writing very personally about myself. It helped me understand what I was going through, and it helped others know where I was. More so than that, people related to what I wrote and shared stories of their own heartbreaks and triumphs. They were inspired to write and share. We were empowered together, and not just about our lives- but about movements, around racism and classism, and about our students.
This February, after pushed to a breaking point of sorts, I wrote my most publicized piece yet- on the case of Peter Liang and Akai Gurley. I was angered at the comparison of Peter Liang and my uncle Vincent Chin- I didn’t think the comparison worked at all and was disrespectful to both my uncle’s legacy as well as Akai Gurley and the black community. I had to remind myself- I want to reach my community in a way that calls into the conversation and helps reflect. I wanted Chinese folk to understand Black Lives Matter and understand, most of all, why supporting Peter Liang was problematic.
I quickly realized that maybe a “first draft” was not enough for what I wanted to do. I called many friends whose writing and BLM commentary I respected. After a nonstop few hours, I finished a first draft- and realized I needed help on the legal lingo necessary to talk about manslaughter and the specifics of the Akai Gurley killing. My older brother told me my tone was off- it was too “sassy” and would turn off people in the community. I wrote and rewrote for a whole day, asking folks across the country for their edits, finally hitting the PUBLISH button on Medium after I got tired of rereading and rewriting.
There are some things I feel I’m qualified to write about, including my own experience, but writing about others’ experiences, and writing pieces that deign to represent a whole swath of people, is more dangerous. I know I have to be more thoughtful about it. I often don’t feel authority to write about others, but I know I have to in order to make change in education, and in the world around me.
Years after elementary school, I think I’ve learned the lessons my teachers were trying to teach me. Writing has helped me get to the point of what I want to say, and has improved my own teaching. In my second year teaching, a friend of mine asked me, “Wow, your words are so confusing. How are you a teacher?” Now, in my fifth year, and yesterday night, I offered advice to a teacher friend of mine to craft her words carefully and thoughtfully while teaching. I realized then I had bettered my writing process. I was thinking carefully about not just my writing but my choice of words, brevity, and making stories interesting.
I typically don’t write unless I am drawn upon to write, but I think I just need to keep writing. There’s so much to say, after all, and I think I know now how to do it in ways more sustainable than before. A number of my Chicago friends and I started a little writing group to help support each other in writing, sharing this frustration about writing.
I hadn’t realized how important writing had been in my life until I had to consider teaching writing. And I hope, in the next few weeks and months, that I can accurately convey that importance to my own fifth-graders. And, who knows, maybe that process will become theirs, too.