The Power of Taking a Risk

I shared my writing with my students and it was really powerful.

I know what you’re thinking:

Of course it was.

We all know this.

We know that we should write with our students, model for our students, share with our students.

But, I know that we don’t. Or, at least, I know that I don’t.

I have 5 preps. I have 150+ students. I am so far behind in grading, I would lose credit in my own class if I was one of my students.

Teacher-Learner image from
Teacher-Learner image from

When my students write, I am circling the room like a trapped bat, trying to simultaneously rescue introductory paragraphs from rhetorical question soft starts, shut down copied theses from Sparknotes, encourage students to find the balance between looking for their playlist and taking the entire class period to create their playlist, squelch the Snapchat selfie parade, and answer “how long does this have to be?” 14,535 times. When my students write, I am too busy desperately trying to do my job to write with them.

Honestly, I write very little. (Obviously, that’s not true. I write all the time. 100s of emails a week to parents and administration and my significant others; all of the Facebook momfails that I post; the occasional tweet where I try to figure out how people know what hashtag to use and if I’m being pretentious or not…) But, writing that I could even possibly share with my students? That I rarely do. Once a month? Once a year?

I do have a poem that I share at the beginning of the year, as a model for peer editing. I model for them how to give and receive editing feedback by being in the editing hotseat for the hour. And this works, kind of, but the students really want to know more about the story behind the poem than pay attention to the writing itself. I show them the rhetorical moves I made, but they want to know about my relationship with my mother and why there were Amish living next door.

So, I can check the “shared my writing with my students” box, but I know that following the letter of the law is not the same as following the spirit of the law. After all, this is just one moment, one class period out of the 177 I will see them this year.

I know that I should do more. But how do I make this work? When do I fit it in? How do I find the time?

Last week, 7th hour, there was a track meet. The track team had an early release and this knocked my already-small 7th hour (thank you, thank you, scheduling gods) down to 6 students. We had been discussing Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and his appeals throughout to logos, pathos, and ethos. I was trying to get students to think about the rhetorical choices that King had made, but they were so in awe of his incredible writing talent (and the piece was so long and so monumental) that the conversation kept drifting back into what he had said and the circumstances surrounding it rather than how he had said it. The students were not wrong, and their discussion was not “uneducational” by any means…but in preparation for the upcoming SAT essay (that half the class will be required to do, per state law) and the upcoming AP Language and Comp exam (that a few of them have elected to attempt, per my encouragement), this discussion wasn’t nearly what it needed to be.

mandatory amusingsI realized, in part, that the text was so big that we couldn’t get away from the weight of his words and the power of the context and focus on his rhetorical choices. The text was getting in the way. And so, I made a gut decision. I grabbed chromebooks from next door, told the students the url to my personal blog, told them to read one specific entry, and asked them to think about the rhetorical moves I had made. In “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” King had backed his audience into a corner, creating a manifesto that allowed no argument. I knew that my piece was shorter, more accessible, less monumental. Maybe my students could see in my piece how I had positioned my audience. Maybe my piece would be better suited to an analysis of the writing itself.

As they read, I felt…conflicted. I wavered between desperately hoping they would like what I had written to worrying that they would think I was being a show-off. I wanted them to like it. I wanted them to laugh at the jokes. I wanted them to squirm like I had tried to make my audience squirm. But I don’t do “look at me, look at me!” very well. It feels disingenuous. I don’t showboat. And I surely don’t do vulnerable well.

students murchieAs they read, they smiled. They laughed. “Oh my god, I love this,” one girl said. (They like me! They really like me!) But then they started to talk. They talked about the piece of writing, and although it was not, perhaps, the profound conversation I had briefly envisioned in my teacher fantasy land, the conversation was good. They talked about how I had positioned the audience. They talked about my tone. They talked about how I had used repetition throughout. They connected with the writing because they connected with me. And I was able to direct them and redirect them back to the writing, because I knew it so well. I asked them to look at the questioning strategy I had used: was I simply using rhetorical questions? Or was it a more specific device, like procatalepsis? And, did I use a logical fallacy throughout the entire piece? Or was my argument valid? (They decided that–although I was bordering on a straw man logical fallacy–my argument stood as valid because I had imbedded valid evidence and because I knew my audience’s rebuttals so well that I was able to anticipate and invalidate the counterargument in its entirety.)

This moment of vulnerability and risk was good. It was effective. It was powerful.

I’m still not sure I followed the spirit of the law. I hadn’t modeled how I wrote the piece, or how I researched it, or the extensive editing that I had done (although I did point out that, after publishing it to the blog, I had since gone back through and edited 11 more times), but I definitely followed the letter of the law: I shared my writing with my students.

The result, for my students, was a spirited conversation. And something happened which I had not anticipated: by being the author of the piece, I was able to interact in a way that King (or Plato, or Thoreau) could not. I could be present in the moment with them. I had made the author accessible. I had, in that small moment with that small group of students, given them an authentic moment they could not have gotten from any other author.

I shared my writing with my students and it was really powerful.

Sharon Murchie bio picSharon Murchie is a high school ELA teacher in Bath, MI. She is a teacher consultant for Red Cedar Writing Project (2005) and Chippewa River Writing Project (2015). She blogs personally at, and she is working on her first book.

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