Writing — an excerpt from Learning by Heart

Excerpted from Learning by Heart by Roland S. Barth. Copyright © 2001 by John Wiley & Sons. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

I have a little sign over my desk that reads, “In order to know what I think I have to write and see what I say.” When one writes, one thinks, one necessarily reflects. Writing can take many forms, such as journal writing, free writing, memo writing.

I remember that as a teacher, then as principal, whenever something especially noteworthy or satisfying or problematic occurred in the classroom or the school—a particularly successful meeting, a remarkable change in a child, a heated letter from a parent, a sudden insight from a teacher—I jotted it down on the back of an envelope or on a napkin and added it to a pile forming in the bottom drawer of my desk. A few years later, I took a year’s leave of absence, looked in my bottom drawer, and found a far different literature than the sedimentary deposits of studies accumulating on top of the desk! I assembled these hundreds of bits and scraps of writing into a book, Run School Run. Without this record of ideas and insights and anecdotes, I would never have been able to create the book. For without these notes there would have been little memory of the rich details of my school experience. Thus, from my momentary reflections in practice, I was later able to reflect more contemplatively on practice.

For most of us, writing comes with great difficulty. Yet part of what it means to be a professional is to learn how to write about practice and to disclose one’s thoughts in writing to others. When we write we become responsible for our words and ultimately we become more thoughtful human beings. Writing (and reading) about practice is closely related to improving practice, for with written words come the innermost secrets of schools and of their schoolmasters.

Time, of course, is a huge impediment to writing. No school person I know has any discretionary time for this kind of “add-on.” The complexity of the subject matter is another obstacle. How does one convert into organized, linear prose the massive, simultaneous onslaught of incidents, behaviors, and feelings that bombard educators each day? Yet when we make a bit of time here and there and develop some meaning—making lenses through which to observe and write about our practice, we find ourselves reflecting on practice, clarifying practice, and learning from practice.

Computers and e-mail make it easy to share and distribute our little writings, insights, or problems to others. Several years ago, my friend Phil, then a principal in Illinois, invited me to engage in an unusual pen pal correspondence. He would write to me and share what was on his mind about matters educational. His rules: no attention is to be paid to grammar, usage, or correct punctuation—just content; if you have time or want to respond, do; if you don’t, then that’s fine, too. Phil and I still continue this wonderful form of reflecting together about schools. It demands little and yields a great deal. Often it’s easier and more fun to have a friend rather than yourself as your audience. Fortunately, potential educational pen pals abound.

Writing about our experiences in schools is one way to ensure that we reflect on and learn from experience. By writing about practice, each of us comes to know more about what we do and about what we know. Because the written word has a shelf life that the spoken word does not enjoy, those who write about their lives in schools discover that other members of the school community are highly interested in their ideas. Presenting a “hard copy” of our observations and reflections on the subject of, say, school leadership to the interested, critical, discerning eyes of teachers, parents, administrators, and students-risky, to be sure—ensures an ongoing conversation about school leadership in hallways, parking lots, and faculty and PTA meetings. Writing about the school’s nondiscussables makes it likely they will be discussed and reflected on. The pen still wields power.