A conversation with Lisa Lucas about “mindful” writing instruction

Dr. Lisa Lucas, Featured Blogger

By Dr. Lisa Lucas, Consultant, Collins Education Associates

Collins Associate Dr. Lisa J. Lucas has recently published Practicing Presence: Simple Self-Care Strategies for Teachers. The purpose of the book is to help frustrated, overwhelmed teachers establish a mindset that enables them to not only cope but to also become more effective in the classroom. A former classroom teacher and now a college professor and coach/consultant, Lisa’s book provides wise suggestions and routines that help teachers rise above their feelings of being overwhelmed.

This is a brief conversation with Lisa about her book and her approach to managing the stress of writing instruction.

Practicing Presence: Simple Self-Care Strategies for Teachers

Q: What was the impetus for your book, Practicing Presence?

LJL: In my work in schools I am often struck by the number of teachers that I meet who share that they are tired and overwhelmed. I hear the same thing from the university students in the college of education program where I am a professor. In an effort to shift this culture of tired and wired, I designed a workshop titled “A Well-Trained Mind: Social Emotional Awareness for Educators.” Frequently, teachers and administrators would ask me to incorporate the workshop strategies in one place so they could be easily referenced. My book provides these research-based strategies and also my own personal journey out of the overwhelmed and into a life of more ease and joy.

Q: For those who have not yet read your book, can you describe what you mean by “presence”?

LJL: Presence to me is about cultivating the mind. Think of it as a cousin to “mindfulness.” Practicing presence give us the ability to anchor ourselves, something I believe all educators need. It also helps us practice paying attention. That’s why the title is Practicing Presence, it’s a lifelong practice, not a once and done. It’s the mental equivalent of physical exercise. If we stop exercising, we lose strength and stamina. If we don’t make a practice of training our mind, our thoughts can run rampant, can lead to feeling tired, wired, and overwhelmed.

Developing presence is like having noise cancelling headphones, which helps eliminate extraneous distractions and helps quiet our mind. A quiet mind is more trainable. I learned how to use my mind to develop skills such as focus, attention, and clarity. These are skills our students also need to develop. If we want to foster students who are writers, teaching them how to use their minds is a natural starting place. Too often in schools we provide content and information, but don’t teach them how to “file” the information so that it becomes part of their working memory.

Q: As a Collins Associate, you work with many writing teachers. What are some of the unique frustrations you see in writing instruction?

LJL: As teachers, how many times have we seen students, that when assigned a writing prompt, put their heads down and lament that they can’t think of anything to write? John Collins has designed his Collins Writing Program around the concept of writing as thinking. Practicing presence can help students harness their thoughts so they can focus, organize their thoughts, and think clearly. I think we as teachers can forget how hard it can be to write on demand.

In my Collins workshops I often do an activity that I have borrowed from my Collins Writing associates. I call the activity Media Experience, which begins with having participants do a simple brainstorming (Type One writing) by listing in three minutes all the books, movies, and television shows they can recall. I can’t tell you how often seasoned teachers struggle to quickly get their thoughts on paper. Some have the same blank stares that our students often have. That simple activity makes it clear that before we brainstorm we need to develop some skills to clear our minds and focus our thoughts. Writing on demand isn’t easy, but a well-trained mind has a better chance of focusing, organizing, and articulating thoughts clearly on paper.

Another frustration I notice when facilitating a workshop is the fear that Collins Writing will be one more thing added to busy teachers’ already overflowing plates. When I begin a session, I always share that my research and publications are on stress reduction for educators, and that the last thing I would do is give educators one more thing to do that wasn’t practical for both teachers and students. I explain that there is only one program that I ever used as a teacher that didn’t feel like another add-on, and that was the Collins Writing Program. I know teachers are tired of being told to “integrate” new programs into their current curriculum requirements. But, honestly, using Collins as a tool for teaching writing truly is integration. We use the content that we’re teaching to solidify information by having students write to strengthen their memory and engage their minds. At the university I use Type One and Type Two writing throughout the class. Lectures can’t be passivestudents need to be actively engaged.

Q: Can you suggest a couple of practices that can make us more mindful writing teachers?

LJL: My approach to writing is to help students and teachers become more aware of their thoughts: the good, the bad, and the holy-smokes-did-I-really-just-think-that thought? By harnessing our thoughts, we can learn how to better focus and attend to the task at hand.

When students understand how their brain works, their concentration and creativity can improve, which impacts the quality of their writing. If we would teach our students at a young age how the brain works, and explicitly how to pay attention, they would apt to be more attentive. For example, we know that frequent quizzing enhances learning and improves retention. But most students see quizzing as a negative. We can let them know that we use low-stakes and no-stakes quizzing (like Type Two writing) to help them learn—as a way of strengthening retrieval. As educators, understanding how we focus, attend to, and remember new information is the first step to teaching our students to become aware of how they learn best.

Q: Can you suggest a couple easy-to-use strategies that you or other teachers have found helpful?

LJL: Sure. Here are a couple for elementary students that work well. One of my favorites is establishing a “Write ‘Em Up Box.”

Young children can be extremely reactive and very egocentric; it’s a normal part of their development. I can recall the line of students at my desk after recess. Each student had a litany of complaints and injustices. One of my goals as a teacher was to have students solve their own problems; my being the jury and judge after recess wasn’t supporting that principle. Another goal was to have students integrate writing across the curriculum as much as possible.

So, I devised the “Write ‘Em Up Box.” If students had suffered an injustice at recess, I told them to write up their experience (or draw if they were preemergent writers) and put it in the box. That’s it. I did not respond to each injustice unless it was a major concern. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the students felt better by just writing down their feelings and thoughts. It’s the same concept as journaling.

Another one I like is “Gratitude Journals.” It involves getting students to think about positives and creating a journal to write about them. It’s easy to incorporate into the morning routine. If both teachers and students would begin their day by writing about what they are grateful for, this practice could improve their mindset. Research substantiates that what you focus on, you tend to see more of. Gratitude can help students appreciate the moment at hand. Writing it down strengthens the memory, and making this a daily habit can train your brain to scan for the good.

Q: How about for secondary students?

LJL: This one is for all ages. We need to teach our students good writing habits. John Collins stresses that writers should read aloud their Type Three essays before submitting them so they can hear how they sound and whether it makes sense. He points out that the ear will hear what the eye doesn’t see, which is why we should read aloud what we write. I urge students to stand when they read their work aloud. Standing up to proofread what you have written also sends blood to the brain. Switching between standing and sitting is good for you. Movement is important to get blood circulation through the muscles.

Taking this concept one step further, if we could ingrain in our students to read aloud the text they are about to send, it might cut down on some of the miscommunication.