The Mess and the Magic: writing to learn

In September I attended the first Pan-Canadian Forum on Teacher Mentorship. As part of the forum, attendees were presented with the opportunity to write a chapter for an edited book about mentorship in Canada. In a haze of enthusiasm, resulting from thinking deeply and talking about my work with mentorship in Delta, I made the commitment to submit a chapter proposal. So a few weeks later I wrote a proposal outlining my ideas and, after it was accepted, I committed to writing a chapter sharing Delta’s story of mentorship. And that’s when my struggle began.

Delta’s story of Mentorship is messy. I like the messiness of our story; I embrace it. I think it is a testament to the rich and authentic learning of all those who participate in the program. I am often biased against “pre-packaged, shiny, tied-up-with-a-bow” programs. Whether it is a linear, step-by-step approach to teaching that “guarantees” success for all students, or a conversation template that promises you will “successfully deal” with all conflict; when something doesn’t leave room for differences, doesn’t address context and place and offers a sanitized solution, I don’t trust it.

Carl Leggo, a poet and professor in the Department of Language and Literacy Education at the University of British Columbia says, “The magic is in the muddle in the middle.” When I first heard him say this more than 6 years ago in a writing class I was taking, it resonated with me. I love the muddle in the middle because that is where the magic of learning lives. Learning and progress are chaotic and untidy and I am really comfortable in that state of messy learning. Trying to make sense of the mess so that I can present the learning in a way that an outsider can understand is difficult because as soon as I start to tidy up the muddle, I feel the magic fading.

As I tried to write my chapter, this tension between my desire to share an understandable story and to avoid telling a sterile story paralyzed me. I couldn’t write because I couldn’t figure out how to write formally and authentically. I couldn’t find the balance between cleaning up the story enough that someone could make sense of it and completely sterilizing it to the point of making it meaningless. I panicked at the thought of presenting some counterfeit story of mentorship and I was horrified at the thought of sharing something that was too disordered to make sense. But I stuck with it and I learned something important.

As I wrote I found sense and structure in the story of mentorship. As a result of my writing process, core beliefs that infuse every part of the story started to emerge.  Organizing the story and tidying up the mess actually served to concentrate the magic rather than dilute it. Just as there is magic in the muddle in the middle, there is also magic in consolidating that muddle. It’s like cleaning out your closet and sorting your clothes. As you arrange them by colour and type, you discover outfit combinations you hadn’t thought of before. They were always there; you just didn’t see them. As I structured the story of mentorship around a set of core beliefs, I saw more and more alignment and depth in the mentorship program.

I started blogging as a way to force myself to write. I knew that for my own learning I needed to write with an audience in mind, that this process would push my growth and development further than just privately scribbling in my notebook would.   What I didn’t see and what I realize now is that it is not just sharing that pushes my learning. The process of recording my thinking in a way that is shareable also pushes my learning further and deeper. I don’t just need to write about my learning. I must write to learn.

There are not many opportunities to write in the day-to-day life of most educators. I mean who has time to sit down and write when we are so engrossed in our learners needs? We are assessing and providing feedback and planning and collaborating. We are engaged in the important work of teaching.

Despite the pressure of dealing with urgent matters and addressing pressing concerns, I have decided to make time to write as part of my own learning and to share that writing publicly. Although it is hard, I am committing to this because in order to do my work well, I need to be a learner first and I have discovered writing is an important part of my learning process. To stay faithful to my goal, I plan to:

  1. seek out opportunities to write about my work
  2. say yes to any opportunity to write and share
  3. embrace the struggle I know will inevitably come with the writing process.

I will embrace the mess of learning AND the magic of straightening it up.

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One thought on “The Mess and the Magic: writing to learn

  1. Pingback: What was I thinking???? Reflections on the Writing I Haven’t Done . . . Yet | Learner First

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