Writing as Therapy for Teachers and Students

This past summer many educators looked toward the beginning of the new school year. We had reason to hope things would be better for us and for our students. We were ready to get back to “normal” and enjoy time in school as opposed to seeing each other through a computer screen.

But by the end of September it seemed the wheels were falling off. Again. As I followed Twitter and talked with colleagues, it was apparent that teachers were already becoming burned out. Winter break seemed very far away.

This week most educators will return to school following the winter holidays and face another long stretch before Spring Break is in sight. I shudder as I think about how many more teachers might leave the classroom because we just can’t handle all that is going on in education today. I worry for all the students who will struggle as their traditional social interactions continue to fragment.

There are no panaceas for this pandemic. But there is a small beacon of light I feel can help both teachers and students feel more focused and in control of their mental and emotional state.

Writing can be a significant outlet for anyone. It’s something we can all use to help us during these unpredictable times. I know I’m not the first to suggest this – reflective writing frequently appears on lists about self-care. So does “telling and listening to stories” – and I’d like to share some of my story here.

Why Writing?

Growing up I never really saw the value in writing. I thought it was important because my teachers told me it was important. My parents both held jobs where there was some type of writing that had to be done. Both my parents also were readers and still are today for the most part. However, I still couldn’t wrap my head around what writing could do for me personally.

Diaries were something to be read when my sisters weren’t home, and if you wrote in one as a boy…let’s just say if your friends found out, school was going to be hell. Even in third grade, when I was a member of Mrs. O’dell’s poetry club, I enjoyed reading poetry more than writing it. The meaning behind each poem never truly reached my head or heart, or inspired me to write a poem of my own.

It wasn’t until I was an adult that I began to understand what writing could do for me. Simply put, writing saved me in many ways. Many individuals have their outlet to help them deal with stress. Some outlets are healthy, some are not. Writing is one of my big outlets (another is lifting weights), and it’s guided me through quite a few personal trials.

Writing and journaling helped me extend my classroom career by a decade or more, and when I did decide to make a change this fall (after 21 years) reflective writing helped me clarify my reasons for making the shift and strengthened my resolve.

Writing can not only be an outlet – it can be healing. Anyone who chooses to write can do so in many different ways. Poetry, journals, blogs, vlogs, diaries, personal videos, forums, etc. As the writer, you can write about anything. If you want to share it with the world, it is completely up to you.

The choices for how to express oneself are endless – and furthermore, it can be done in any classroom, not just English (I also taught Science). Some teachers limit their writing to classroom hours, when they write along with students. I made the choice to take it outside of the classroom as well. The writing world is vast, and there is so much that can be discovered when words are put to paper.

The Writing Project changed my game

2010 was a game changer for me. That was the summer I participated in the Summer Institute for the Chippewa River Writing Project (a satellite site of the National Writing Project). It not only opened up my mind to what writing can be, it made me a better teacher of writing.

First and foremost, the way I taught my students about the purpose and promise of writing changed significantly. Prior to the Summer Institute, my students would write in notebooks sporadically, and they never really did anything with the writing they produced.

Occasionally, I would grade their notebooks to make sure they were actually writing, but nothing very meaningful was happening. As I reflect back, it was almost as if I was using writing as a time filler. I’ll always be grateful for the Writing Project movement (which is alive and active in every state). It really did change my game.

Helping students see the value in writing

There are some simple steps teachers can take to help students use writing as a type of therapy or as an outlet and stress reliever. First, create time for students to write about anything they choose. And have them write Every…Single…Day.

Of course, given complete freedom, some (most?) students will complain that they don’t know what to write about. Each day during our free-writing time I started with a prompt that was related to something that directly impacted my students. For instance, when we were at the beginning of the pandemic, I asked them how they were feeling about being in isolation.

Even though I usually gave my students a prompt or nudge, I always told them they had some choices.

  1. Write about the topic for today.
  2. Continue a piece of writing that you were working on in previous days.
  3. Write about anything else that may be on your mind.

They could choose the type or style of writing. Prose. Poetry. Storytelling. Illustrated text. Fan fiction. The goal was to using writing as a way to open a portal into their inner self and discover something, share something, understand something better.

I do understand that writer’s notebooks can be used as brainstorming areas for projects or as a place to possibly record academic thinking. However, since being part of the Summer Institute, I’ve wanted my students to take ownership of their writing as a tool for expression and self-discovery.

Besides having choice, students need time to share. Sharing should be started as soon as possible in the school year (in my opinion) because relationships must be built with and among middle school students. There should be options and choices with sharing as well. For example, students might share as:

  • A whole class
  • Groups of 3-4 students
  • Partners
  • With a video (Flipgrid)
  • With an email sent to a friend or teacher

There are many possibilities where students could feel comfortable sharing their writing. During this time I also allowed my students to share anything they’d written in their notebooks – not just what they wrote during our daily activity.

Many times when I had students sharing in small groups or with partners, it led to them to initiate sharing as a whole class. Though this might have taken anywhere between 10 and 15 minutes, it was worth the time investment when I could see students excited to share and to see their writing improve.

Did my students learn the why of writing, as well as the how? Many did. As a matter of fact, some of my past students continued their daily writing into high school and now keep a journal or pursue writing goals as adults.

Writing as an outlet for teachers

One particular comment I often hear from teachers I have worked with is “I don’t have time to write.” It’s not that they don’t want to do it; they just don’t think adding one more thing to their plate is possible.

Using writing as an outlet or therapy doesn’t have to be complicated for anyone, especially teachers. I know every teacher is stretched to the limit and are often on the brink of being completely stressed out. Writing can help!

Every day when my students wrote, I wrote. Like my students, sometimes I wrote about the topic I gave them, but most days I used the time to get my feelings out and do what I could to relieve my stress and rally my spirit. On occasion I even wrote a poem.

Oftentimes I would position myself around the classroom so my students could see that I was writing. I even sat on the floor with a few of them as we all poured our hearts out onto the paper. When it came time for sharing, I made sure to share something from my own writing. I wanted my students to see that I was vulnerable too. Besides, it is amazing when your students can give you a perspective on something that you might not have thought of before.

If writing with your students doesn’t work for you, there are many other strategies teachers can use to get themselves in a writing mindset. For example:

  • Schedule times to write on your personal calendar and honor the commitment.
  • Write 10 minutes before going to bed each night.
  • Write while you exercise (e.g., find a bench to sit on and write if you walk).
  • Wake up 10 minutes early each day to write.
  • Record yourself on your phone while driving home.
  • Join or organize a writing group to help with “accountability.”
  • Start a blog (any topic will do) and commit to writing at least once a week.
  • Write while waiting for the doctor or dentist via Google Doc.

Similar to the choices that students can have, teachers have options too, and writing can be a great outlet. Writing doesn’t have to take a lot of time and it can be rewarding, especially if you have others to share it with. If a physical notebook is not for you, Google Docs is a great place to write, and it can be down/uploaded via your phone. Those long waits at appointments or when your car is being serviced can be used to write what is on your mind.

An editor I know was given a Storyworth membership by his daughter. He was amazed by the strong urge he felt to write each time he received one of the writing site’s prompts in an email (everything from what were your favorite toys as a child to what’s a small decision you made that turned out to have a big impact?). Maybe an option similar to this would get you writing.

Writing is truly a life skill

Writing is often overlooked as a positive outlet to help our students and to help educators. Teachers and students are busy, there is no denying it. Yes, there are SEL programs that can help our students, but writing can be used alongside those programs to help nurture students further.

We are also living in a time where teachers need to take care of themselves and not just their students. Teachers need an outlet right now as they navigate online learning, higher demands on their time and energy, and changes in curriculum. “Write for life” can have a double meaning when teachers discover the power of this tool we already have the skills to use.

Personally, writing has changed my life in so many positive ways. As a result of my being a consistent writer, I am less stressed, more focused, and more confident. Regular writing has led to many professional possibilities (such as this blog at MiddleWeb). Writing about what I’ve learned on my teaching journey led me to sharing with my friend and writing project colleague Troy Hicks, and ultimately to our series of co-authored books about aspects of teaching.

Finally, if you feel that writing is something that you would like to try – as therapy or a new personal venture – but you aren’t sure where to start, please contact me and I would love to help you in any way I can. You can find me on Twitter @Jeremybballer.

Image credits: Unsplash from Marcos Paulo Prado; Shutterstock; Unsplash by Hello I’m Nik.

Jeremy Hyler’s books for educators include Ask, Explore, Write! An Inquiry-Driven Approach to Science and Literacy Learning (2020, with Troy Hicks and Wiline Pangle); From Texting to Teaching: Grammar Instruction in a Digital Age (2017, with Troy Hicks), and Create, Compose, Connect! Reading, Writing, and Learning with Digital Tools (2014, with Troy Hicks).

Jeremy Hyler

Jeremy Hyler left his position as an English and Science teacher at Fulton Middle School in Middleton, Michigan in the fall of 2021. He is now a Manager of Educational Partnerships at the Center for the Collaborative Classroom. Hyler has co-authored three professional books with Dr. Troy Hicks – Create, Compose, Connect! Reading, Writing, and Learning with Digital Tools (Routledge, 2014); From Texting to Teaching: Grammar Instruction in a Digital Age (Routledge, 2017) and, most recently, Ask, Explore, Write!: An Inquiry-Driven Approach to Science and Literacy Learning (Routledge, 2020). Follow him @Jeremybballer and check out his podcast Middle School Hallways on your favorite podcast platform.

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