I wrote before about how I am teaching my first ever college class. There are 5 students – all prospective middle school English teachers. Monday is the last class. I want to leave them with some major points. Here’s my current draft. Thoughts are appreciated.
If you only keep one thing from this class, I hope it’s this. . .
After 23.5 years, here’s what I think about teaching writing. . . (in no particular order)
1. Revision is normal. Make it part of the culture from day 1. Everyone revises. It’s getting harder, but see if you can find examples of authors your students know talking about or even showing their revisions. Show you have revised, which means, and I know this can be unnerving, but. . .
2. Write beside them. (This is a title from a great Penny Kittle book about teaching writing.) You have to write in front of your students. They need to see your mistakes, your revisions, how you receive feedback, etc.. You get to decide how personal you want this writing to be, but you have to do it.
3. Don’t write too many comments. The biggest complaint I hear from teachers is the amount of time it takes them to give feedback on student writing. If you like them or are required to use them, create rubrics. Make sure you and your students know the writing goals of the assignment, and only make comments on those aspects of the writing. Remember who is receiving your comments, and watch out for positive feedback bias. Don’t get burned out, and don’t use a red pen. And if you are going to make comments, you have to find a way to hold students accountable for them. And if you find yourself making the same comment over and over again, you need to learn from that and plan accordingly.
4. Creative writing matters. It may not, on the surface, do as much to ‘prepare’ students for high school and beyond, but it fosters the imagination, something we are charged with cultivating, nourishing and protecting.
5. Teaching grammar in isolation doesn’t work. Research has proven this. Over and over again. Teach it in the service of a writing skill – sentence combining or sentence variety, for example. Then, once again, hold students accountable for it.
6. Testing is real. It’s just not really important. It can have an impact on your evaluation, but you really don’t have much control over it. Familiarize students with the rubric. Teach them how to unpack a prompt. Give them some practice in timed situations. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself or the students.
7. Write a lot. This may seem to contradict #3 above, but it doesn’t. We get better at playing the piano by practicing. The same thing is true about writing. Not every piece of writing has to be long or graded or revised. But try to have the students write every day – whether it’s a journal response or one really good sentence that uses a semi-colon. Every day.
8. Share good writing. Fiction, non-fiction, poetry, newspaper articles, speeches, plays, etc.. Corrolary: Read a lot, including what your students are reading.
9. Collaborate. This one, like #6, is not always under your control, but if you can, plan with a colleague, grade with a colleague, steal from a colleague. You’ll both get better.
10. Develop yourself professionally. I’m sure you’ll be made to do certain things (some might even be useful), but seek out your own opportunities. I’ve enjoyed NCTE and the NWP. I like Atwell, Kittle, Wilhelm, Calkins, Steele, Delpit, etc.. You’ll find your authors. Keep up.
11. 1-1 conferences help. In order for them to work, you’ve got to set up a culture that allows you to conduct these quickly and privately and in a way that will mean the rest of the students are distracted. Consider Anderson, Atwell, etc.. You’ll find your way. And your way will evolve.
12. ‘Publish.’ – Primarily, I mean, have a coffee house, have a reading, make it a public celebration, create a class magazine or website, something. There are teachers who don’t like submitting to magazines, contests, etc.. I do. Just (obviously) watch out for scams. Use authentic genres. Get the writing out there; make it matter. Show students how to use writing to make change.
13. Have a system. Process writing can involve lots of pieces of paper. Design a paper flow that keeps everyone sane and organized.
14. Be ready. What is your school’s policy on controversial books? On controversial issues in writing (like using profanity or certain kinds of language)? What are your own ideas? What if a student reveals something that troubles you? What’s the school’s policy? Who’s in the school to support you? What about plagiarism? What about an overly helpful parent?
15. Think hard about grading. Does every piece need to be graded? Does every step of the process need to be graded? If a student skips, for example, an outline, but still submits a good rough draft, how will you handle this? You will never be able to have a plan for every contingency, but that shouldn’t stop you from trying.
16. Be patient and positive. Teaching writing is a long haul. There will be times when you wonder if you’re making any impact. Celebrate the good stuff, however small.
17. Use local resources. There are plenty in Cleveland, for example, like Lake Erie Ink. Sometimes, local writers will come speak with your class. Reach out; the impact can be amazing.
And my rule always is — Once your teacher, always your teacher. If you want to talk or ask me to look at something or even stop by, you know how to find me.