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Writing a Book Is a 'Teacher's Version of Climbing Mount Everest'

(This is the final post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What is your advice for active K-12 educators who might be thinking about writing a book? 

In Part One, educators Sarah Cooper, Tom Rademacher, Rita Platt, and Pernille Ripp shared their experiences writing books while teaching at the same time. 

In Part Two, John Norton and Lauren Davis, two exceptional editors (and I speak from having direct experience with them both)  contributed their suggestions.

Today, six teacher-authors—Bobson Wong, Larisa Bukalov, Tara Dale, Mandi White, Elisabeth Johnson, and Evelyn Ramos—discuss what they learned over the past year and a half as they completed their books, which are all being published in the coming weeks. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Bobson, Tara, and Elisabeth on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In the interest of transparency, I also have to say that the books these six teachers have written are modeled on one my co-author Katie Hull Sypneiski and I wrote titled the ELL Teacher's Toolbox. In addition, Katie and I edited the books in the series today's contributors have written, The Math Teacher's Toolbox, The Science Teacher's Toolbox, and The Social Studies Toolbox.

 

Writing has improved our teaching

Bobson Wong and Larisa Bukalov teach math at a large public high school in New York City. They are authors of The Math Teacher's Toolbox (Jossey-Bass, 2020) and recipients of the Math for America Master Teacher Fellowship:

Many K-12 teachers find writing to be a challenge. After planning lessons, grading papers, contacting parents, and dealing with families and personal lives, having the time and energy to write can be challenging. However, we find that the rewards of doing any kind of writing make the effort worthwhile. Writing has not only helped us reflect on our practice and given us more perspective on our work, but it has also improved our teaching.

We believe that all teachers can become authors. Figuring out what to say may seem daunting, but most teachers usually have no shortage of interesting stories to tell. Anyone who's ever come into the teacher's lounge or department office saying, "You won't believe what happened today!" has a story to tell. As teachers ourselves, we do this all the time! The hard part, though, is making that story more concrete.

To make these stories more relevant to others, we think about what lessons others can learn from them. In our experience, our failures often provide valuable opportunities for self-reflection. For example, if most of our students did poorly on a test, we consider why that happened. Did we move too quickly? Did we provide enough scaffolding and support? Did we not consider other factors that affected students' focus? Writing about our reflection gives a larger meaning to our experiences.

One way to express thoughts publicly without having to do lengthy writing is to use social-media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Twitter's 250-character limit forces users to be succinct in their writing, although many users post longer ideas with threads (linked tweets), images, and videos. Following Twitter hashtags like #edchat, #MTBoS (for math teachers), or #ELAchat (for English teachers) and contributing to their online conversations has helped us build relationships with educators from around the world. The online communities centered on these hashtags are also a great place to ask and answer questions from fellow educators. We not only get many valuable ideas from social media, but we were actually approached to write The Math Teacher's Toolbox based on Bobson's tweets!

Writing blog posts helped us refine our ideas and build an audience. Platforms like EduBlogs, WordPress, Weebly, and Wix give educators the ability to run a website at little or no cost. Many web- hosting companies offer the ability to buy a personalized website address (http://bobsonwong.com instead of http://bobsonwong.edublogs.org or http://bobsonwong.wordpress.com), which can make a blog's address shorter and easier to remember. We recommend keeping blog posts like op-ed pieces, keeping them to less than 1,000 words and focused on one idea, with conclusions that explain how they relate to readers' experiences. To publicize blog entries, we like to promote them by posting links on social media with a teaser or short summary ("in my latest blog post, I talk about how I used algebra tiles to teach solving linear equations").

Writing articles for educational websites is another way to bring your ideas to a wider audience. Publications like ASCD's Educational Leadership, the AFT's American Educator, and Edutopia have open calls for articles on various topics. Other possible venues include local publications (such as union newsletters or local newspapers) and journals run by professional organizations (such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics or National Science Teaching Association.

Of course, none of these strategies that we describe here will guarantee that you'll get a book contract. But we encourage all teachers who have the time to write to do so. We find that writing— even one or two blog posts a year or a few tweets a month—helps us reflect on our practice and share our ideas with colleagues that can benefit from our experiences. When more teachers join the conversation on education, we all benefit.

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Teaching and Writing: Like Peas and Carrots

Tara C. Dale is currently a high school science teacher and instructional coach.  Mandi S. White works as an academic and behavior specialist who was a classroom teacher for nine years prior.  They are co-authors of the book, The Science Teacher's Toolbox:

As the sayings go, teaching and writing are "two peas in a pod" or "like peas and carrots." There are many similarities between the two, so if you are a teacher who is contemplating writing a book, you already have many of the skills.

Planning

Just as you plan and research before teaching a lesson, writing requires planning and researching. We began planning by asking ourselves the following questions:

1. Who is our main audience? 

* science teachers from 4-12th grades

2. What knowledge do we want our audience to gain while they read our book?

* teaching science so it's student-centered

* teaching students how to think critically, problem-solve creatively, and communicate effectively

* integrating other disciplines, such as math, the arts, reading, and writing

* differentiating for specific student populations such as English-language learners, those with learning challenges, and gifted students

 

After we identified our audience and purpose, we made two lists, one of which was what we felt our strengths were and the other was a list of what we felt we needed to learn more about. For example, one of our strengths was integrating reading and writing into science classrooms, but we had not often used the ideation process when brainstorming with students.  

We then researched the items on the second list so that we had additional knowledge and resources. We practiced these strategies multiple times with our students so that we could write from a personal perspective. For example, in our book, The Science Teacher's Toolbox, every strategy includes a section titled "What Could Go Wrong?" Because we attempted every strategy that is discussed in our book, we knew from firsthand experience where students would struggle and could then offer proactive advice to fellow teachers.

Writing

As teachers, when we develop lesson plans, we make an outline that indicates the order in which students will complete tasks. When we wrote our book, we also made an outline, which included the following:

  1. The content of each chapter
  2. The resources we would provide in each chapter
  3. The order of the chapters

We then began to write our first chapters. As we wrote, we sometimes found ourselves straying from the outline. Just as our state science standards keep us focused through a unit, we referenced the outline so that we would remain focused on our book's goals.

Reflecting

As secondary teachers, we have the privilege of reflecting after each class period and making necessary changes to improve the lesson for the next class.

It's during the editing process that reflecting occurs. After we wrote each chapter, we sent the rough drafts to our editors, Larry Ferlazzo and Katie Hull-Sypnieski. Often, Larry and Katie would ask us questions that required us to reflect, such as, "What do mean when you say this?" and "Is there a better way to describe this?" 

We soon learned that an editor's intention is to improve the product, and we needed to be open-minded and willing to hear their criticisms and constructive feedback.There were times when Larry and Katie asked us questions that required us to be vulnerable as we reflected on our successes as teachers but also our failures.  

The reflecting process was sometimes emotional, but we leaned on one another for support. We found that it was easier to reflect and edit when we were cheerleaders for one another.  

Celebrating

After students accomplish a task or conquer a difficult topic, we celebrate with them. Of course they receive good grades, but we also give them positive feedback and high fives, which are then followed up with personal notes to their parents.

We made a concerted effort to celebrate our accomplishments throughout the writing process. When a chapter was finalized, especially those that required 12 or 15 edits, we took an evening off to do something fun. This was a big deal for us because we did most of our writing in the evenings, after teaching all day. We often met during the weekends, too, because we had strict deadlines that we wanted to adhere to. We very much appreciated an evening off so that we could have dinner with our families or attend a movie with friends.

As teachers, we hope to have a positive impact on our students' lives. As authors, we hope to share our passion of teaching with others. We used our lesson-planning skills to drive the writing process, leveraging our strengths as purposeful classroom leaders. You, too, can leverage your strengths as you venture into the writing process. And if you can, bring a friend along for the ride. We found it to be incredibly valuable to have a partner throughout the process, just like we do in our professional learning communities at school.

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Writing a book is like climbing "Mount Everest"

Elisabeth Johnson, a national-board-certified teacher with a master's in education, has taught a variety of social studies classes for the past 13 years at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, Calif.

Evelyn Ramos, an Area 3 Writing Project teacher consultant with a master's in education, has taught a mix of social studies classes at Luther Burbank High School for the past 12 years.

They are the authors of The Social Studies Teacher's Toolbox: Hundreds of Practical Ideas To Support Your Students:

We had no idea what we were getting into when Larry Ferlazzo and Katie Hull-Sypnieski first approached us about writing a book. Though Katie did her best to warn us both of the hard work and time it would require, we excitedly agreed. We both love teaching and felt inspired to follow in the footsteps of our great mentors. In a selfish way, we also wrote this book for ourselves as a way to organize and perfect a treasure trove of tried and true strategies.

We realized quickly, as lovingly crafted chapters were returned from our editors with hundreds of suggested changes and comments, that writing a book was going to be the teacher's version of climbing Mount Everest. We'd like to pass on some of our hard-earned knowledge about writing a book about teaching, while teaching. 

Writing a book is a team endeavor; get a mentor or multiple mentors. Find an expert to help guide you—we lucked out by having editors who have a ton of educational book-writing experience. We also benefited from the long-term professional relationship we had with our editors, and with each other, prior to this project. The multiple perspectives and experiences brought to the table can help a writer craft a clear, concise text. For example, we would get so deep into the lesson, having taught it many times before, that we couldn't see that our written explanation was not accessible to a novice teacher. Without our editors, and each other, we would not have been able to catch these mistakes.

Communicating with family when starting a book adventure is also key.  Don't be afraid to ask for help to achieve your goals. You are allowed to ask your team at home to step up to the plate and help out with extra duties so that you can excel professionally without guilt (especially as a woman and a mother). There were many times we felt guilty for having to pull away, but in hindsight, we realize we would do the same for our partners (they really didn't mind and were super supportive).

Have a vision-board mentality for your book. Plan, plan, plan. Think about the overall message of your book. We spent hours brainstorming a list of ideas and then outlined each chapter. These were reviewed by our team prior to being fully drafted—in all honesty, these "reviews" prior to writing didn't begin until halfway through the book, and that was definitely a mistake. Frequent and early communication with all members of our writing team turned out to be crucial.

On the other hand, it's important to be flexible. Don't cling to the "perfect lesson" that has gone over so well every time you have taught it. Not everything translates well to text in an engaging and readable way—at least we couldn't always figure the right words to bring a strategy to life. We had to remain humble when we were told to slash entire chapters or rewrite the same section over and over again. 

During the process, realize that life is still going to happen. Toddlers will still get sick. Ours did. You might get sick. We did. You will have awful days at work and still have to head to the computer to write and revise. Furthermore, the writing and the editing process is emotional—even though the topic may not always be emotional. It is normal to have a variety of strong feelings when drafts come back heavily edited. This is the time to lean in on those professional and personal relationships mentioned previously and practice some self-compassion. At the end of climbing your "Mount Everest," you will step back, as we did, and be amazed at what you have accomplished. 

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Thanks to Bobson, Larisa, Mandi, Tara, Elisabeth, and Evelyn for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It's titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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