Take the Brakes Off Your Angst of Writer’s Workshop With The Unstoppable Writing Teacher by Colleen Cruz

Returning to your ten-month residency—your classroom, why not kick-off the fall with the familiar energy of a freshly minted school year and build upon it, pushing through resistance and further pressing the accelerator (instead of releasing it). In The Unstoppable Writing Teacher (2015), Colleen Cruz, author, educator, and literacy consultant, penned a book that acts as a pocket colleague: resourceful and a reminder of how easy energy levels can drop into the red.

What Is It About?

Technically, this text is categorized as a professional text about writing, and it is, but it reads more like a coach: deepening your theoretical understanding and allowing you freedom to adapt any methodology into a style that works best for you. Cruz is the first to admit to that teaching is a profession where travesty looms: pressures, conflicts, and potential pitfalls The end game for any writer’s workshop is to produce stronger writers, and Cruz guides her readers to arrive in a place more confident to lead their writers to a destination of greater potential.

Writing Style

Cruz’s most recent publication does not prescribe a particular scope and sequence, nor does it provide a “how to” guide for anything. Quite the contrary, The Unstoppable Writing Teacher speaks conversationally, as if you were enjoying the afternoon break in the day with a collegial lunch-mate. A pleasing read because Cruz didn’t bulk up her book with an abundance of teacher-jargon, and she wove in her own personality throughout the text, further adhering your bond to her as a mentor, and friend. For example, when she recanted what teaching resembles, you find yourself intrigued to tap into her vast resourcefulness and expertise in literacy,

“The sand mandala is meant to be a reminder of life’s impermanence. That anything made by humans is not permanent. The value of the sand mandala is in the process, the thinking, meditating, and learning as the creating is happening. The finished piece hardly matters because it was never meant to last. This reminds me so much of teaching.” (p. 3)

The workload for teachers piles up quickly, generating anxiety in the blink of an eye. In these weighted moments, teachers may sense doubt creeping closer and closer to the forefront of their thinking: I bit off more than I can chew. Cruz convinces you the work is possible, and your attitude shifts from can’t to can:

“But perhaps more importantly still, don’t try to grab the bull first. Go for a calf-a small problem that you can grow your muscles with, knowing that, of course, all problems are relative. And knowing that by making your problem-solving muscles bigger gradually, you will be able to handle the bull (in every sense of the word) easily, soon enough.” (p. 5-6)

An identical amount of imagery and ingenuity seats the reader side by side with Cruz as she embarks on the various avenues of writing development.

Positively Pessimistic

As an elementary teacher, I wonder how often others expect us to be obnoxiously happy, running around with smiles plastered to our faces and constantly expressing: how cutes and how sweets. Teachers would rally in agreement: not all teachers are like that. We may not all be cut from the same cloth, but I definitely sense a “stink-eye” from others if my plastered smile evolves into a more serious tone. I was jealous of all those who shared a workspace with Cruz because I closely related to her pessimistic vantage; I imagined collaborative meetings improving exponentially with another like-minded person to dispense that other view. Cruz defends such an attitude,

“There is actually research that shows that being pessimistic, embracing difficulties and hardships and seeing them for what they really are (crappy), is a much healthier and, strangely, happier way of being than thinking positively and being optimistic all the time.” (p. XVII)

Since Cruz’s personality felt so in line with mine, situations she laid out could seamlessly streamline into my own practices. I envisioned myself mimicking similar scenarios as when Cruz shared how Kristine Mraz, co-author of Smarter Charts encourages student independence,

“I pretend I can’t use my arms. If I let them try to do everything, it might not be perfect, it will probably be messy, but most kids will figure out how to do a lot more than we think they can.” (p. 27-28)

In my opinion, the best professional texts are the ones that translate into your own daily work, and I’m glad to see your heads bobbing in agreement. This text is an easy blend into a teacher’s mentality during the writer’s workshop block. Too positive? Well, it’s worth a trip to Amazon or your local bookstore, to say the least.

Point of View

Besides pessimistic, Cruz wants teachers to feel successful because it will translate to the Ticonderaga toters we are expected to achieve results from.

Cruz calls on the Godmother of Writer’s Workshop, Lucy Calkins, to acknowledge the trials and tribulations teachers, even the best of the best, encounter: pressures of fear, time, and loneliness.

With regards to the fear many teachers are gripped with, Lucy is mindful of how it happens in The Unstoppable Writing Teacher’s Foreword,

“We back away into our individual offices or classrooms, thinking, ‘I won’t tell anyone about what’s going wrong. I won’t talk about it. I’ll just pretend it doesn’t exist.’” (p. X)

The dilemma of time is age-old, not only restricted to teaching, though it creates an immense stress on a teacher’s psyche to cram a six-hour day with everything. Cruz recalled Calkins’ perspective on the clock mounted in your classroom,

“Lucy Calkins has called finding time to teach a professional hazard.” (p. 69)

Cruz also used Calkins’ wisdom to broaden enlightenment to the fact that the communal aspect of teaching can quickly morph into the loneliest profession in the world,

“Lucy Calkins has spoken about how teaching can be a lonely profession. But not always for the reasons we think. She said that when we do something amazing, like motivate a student, or teach a powerful lesson, it can be like shooting a hole-in-one and no one is watching.” (p. 100)

All in all, Cruz is aware of the many hazard lights and roadblocks to a teacher’s instruction, but she positions writing instruction to be attainable by all. She even addressed what some critics voice is lacking from the writing in a classroom structured using a workshop format: conventions and grammar. Cruz’s analysis of grammar and conventions paints a vivid picture of their value as key elements of writing,

“As much as we wish it were otherwise, people are judged on the way they present themselves. If I show up to a job interview wearing flip-flops, there’s a good chance I’m doing damage to my chances to get that job. In some ways, grammar and conventions are the writing equivalent of flip-flops at a job interview.” (p. 84-85)

Unearthing her role as your personal coach between the lines of each chapter, Cruz will even roll-up her sleeves and dirty her hands on topics that aren’t frequently examined by many at the top of the field.

“It’s one of those dirty little secrets of teaching writing. Sometimes, it can feel boring. Sometimes, hearing about kids’ lives and the things they want to tell us can leave us stifling yawns.” (p. 47)

Teachers prefer to work with other teachers they can trust. Cruz’s openness and honesty widens the potential to let new practices be etched into a teacher’s lesson plan book.

Rating

The Unstoppable Writing Teacher was, in fact, an unstoppable reading experience, and the thoughtful work of the author is evident. Different connections and emotions will be triggered, and you, likely, will walk away from this reading feeling more confidence to continue your trek to the best writer’s workshop possible, for you and your students. I found myself energized after my time reading with a number of reasons for why The Unstoppable Writing Teacher is worth every gold star out of five!

Conclusion

In her writing of The Unstoppable Writing Teacher, Cruz zoomed in on writing as her focal point, though the intentional moves suggested are applicable to any facet of teaching: preparation, plausibility, reflection, and, of course, pessimism. As Calkins announced in the Foreword, we should feel empowered as teachers to embrace the excitement of what is masked behind the curtain of drudgery, so we can all focus on the necessary work at hand,

“Naming our fears isn’t about confessing guilt. When we linger in the details of our uncertainty and doubt, we can see the opportunities that lie hidden beneath.” (p.XI)

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