Teaching students how to write is really hard. Students need direct instruction, engaging “real world” models, time to write and revise, an audience they care about, and assignments that appeal to them. Even on the best of days when we’ve somehow managed to tick off all of these boxes, we still have to wrangle with the morass of hormones and developmentally appropriate inattention that is the hallmark of a middle schooler.
Like most teachers, I’m constantly swapping out new (and old) writing pedagogies in search of anything that will get my students excited about their writing. But no matter what instructional methods I’m trying out, one tool remains consistent: writing alongside my students. I don’t mean cobbling something together to offer as a finished product to emulate, but actually getting down into the trenches sweating it out word for word with them on every assignment.
This does a few things. It helps me treat writing seriously and unseriously. Both perspectives are necessary for a writer. It’s also a quick way to find out whether or not an assignment sucks. Working on a piece of writing alongside my students helps me see the nuts and bolts of the assignment. The more I do it, the better I become at predicting where the sticking points will be. Which areas I can gloss over and which skills will require a deep dive. It gives me a chance to demystify the writing process and show students just show much work goes into crafting something even semi-coherent.
When I write with my students, I send the message that what we’re doing in the classroom is worthy of serious time and effort. And that we’re in it together. The feedback goes both ways.
The call for teachers to write with their students is nothing new. A debate about the efficacy of writing alongside students raged across the pages of NCTE’s English Journal in the nineties when high school teacher Karen Jost argued that the time it takes for teachers to write is better spent conferring with students. Teachers already have too much to do, she explained. The demand that teachers of writing now themselves should be writing smacked as yet another example of teachers being told what to do by supposed thought leaders who hadn’t stepped foot in an average classroom in years.
In many ways Jost wasn’t wrong. There is no time. It’s impossible for me to do everything I’m supposed to do. Every day is a series of cost/benefit decisions. I get one 45 minute planning period unmolested by meetings a day. Do I spend it in an IEP meeting that will surely go into my lunch break? Or do I use that time to provide written feedback on student writing? But if I do either of those, I won’t be able to finally meet with that student who has been writing about how bad his depression has gotten. I also need to check in with the counselor about a student’s math placement and think ahead to tomorrow’s lesson. Few of my options deal directly with classroom instruction and the Herculean task of growing readers and writers. So I understand why asking teachers to begin writing with their students seems like just another task.
But that the decision to write alongside our students isn’t a binary choice. It’s more of a stance we take towards curriculum, instruction, and our place inbetween. A teacher as writer stance connects us with the art and science of writing in a way that no rubric or exemplar ever could. It’s the best way to learn that a piece of writing’s center of gravity changes multiple times throughout the writing process. Or that no matter how hard an author wrestles with a piece, sometimes it just doesn’t work out.
To get started, consider one place you can write with your students. A brainstorming session for an upcoming essay or poem, for instance. The good thing about students not being used to their teachers writing is that they won’t call you out if you don’t follow through on it.
Writing alongside your students will fundamentally alter your relationship with what you teach, how you teach it, and how you relate to students. And as this relationship begins to shift, so will your relationship to the writing instruction that’s going on around you. You will (re)connect with the transformative potential of literacy and the power of words to bind us together. It’s a way to come home to a profession that seems so bent on throwing up hurdles between what we do and why we do it.
Whenever I plan for writing conferences, my mind conjures up images of a Nancy Atwellian wonderland. Students laugh as we share humorous anecdotes about writing and life. Kids lounge on lush carpeting, lost in the pleasure of working on their pieces as they patiently wait their turn. Every student is smiling and every pencil is writing.
In reality, conferring with students about their writing is one of the most challenging things I do as an educator. My overstuffed classroom is filled with kids who scrape out two sentences a week jostling elbows with future Jason Reynoldses and J.K. Rowlingses. Also, the recursive nature of writing is at odds with the linear logic of most unit planning, so managing conference time within an at least semi-coherent sequence of planning, drafting, and revising. And any time I feel like I’m getting into the flow of it, a picture day/assembly/drill/band concert barges in.
On top of this, most kids come to the classroom convinced that writing is boring. That it’s a useless regurgitation of opinions and stories long calcified in their brains. Where’s the rubric? How many pages do I have to write? How can I get an A? I don’t fault them for this. It’s a logical response and it’s how you play the game of school.
When I do manage to make writing conferences work, it’s glorious. My approach to writing conferences aims for a middle ground blending a contemporary skills based approach with classic expressivism.
Peter Elbow’s 1973 classic Writing Without Teachers argues that when it comes to responding to student writing, traditional teachers are the worst. Elbow says that students need feedback that comes from readers, not teachers. Readers approach a text for pleasure and meaning. What effect do the words have on them? What do they wish the author did more or less of? What questions does the text leave them with?
He contrasts this to the traditional teacher, someone who experiences the text through the fragmented lens of assessing discrete skills and hunting for errors. Does the story effectively use dialogue not at all, some of the time, or most of the time? Do the student’s word choices nearly meet, meet, or exceed the expectations?
I begin a conference by reading a student’s piece quietly out loud to them. I make sure to display genuine engagement with and wonder about each piece. This takes practice. It’s been essential to my pedagogical spirit to retrain myself to see student writing as something to be enjoyed versus something to be fixed. I interject anytime I see something that works. A funny piece of dialogue, and suspenseful ending, a strong vocabulary word. Anything that would be useful for the student to do more of. I look specifically for craft moves. Using figurative language, intentional organization, etc.
This is where I try to respond to the piece as a reader. I ask what’s gonna happen next. I tell them what I’m curious about as a reader. What questions I have and what the piece makes me think about and feel.
Then I leave the student with one specific thing to do. Sometimes it’s as simple as “keep writing!” Other times it’s more targeted. “It looks like you’re ready to turn those stage directions into punctuated dialogue! Why don’t you review the dialogue punctuation handout I gave you on Monday?” This is where the direct object of teaching comes in. I’m teaching the students to do something besides just increasing their composition fluency.
On the best of days I can meet with around five kids per 42 minute class. After class I write down what I saw in each kid’s draft and what I told them to do. I’ve tried various documentation methods and this is what works best for me. The process of documenting a conference as it’s happening slows me down too much and breaks up the flow.
Students tell me that conferences help them improve as writers more than anything else we do in class. I never get to meet with every student during each assignment, but I do my best. Just like teaching, conferences are a messy dialogue between teacher and student, a challenging process that requires time, engagement, and reflection. But the juice is always worth the squeeze.
Jorge jiggled his knee as I read over his story, his anxiety palpable. “It’s just… I mean… I know there’s a lot,” he said as he raked his hand through his spiky hair for the third time in as many minutes. He was right. By the end of the first page I counted at least eight characters and four drastically different settings. For feedback, I told him two things. First, that as a reader I was having a hard time figuring out who to focus on. Then I told him to listen as I read his story back to him. Which part of his story excited him the most? He zeroed in on a character (Tommy and his magical Book of the Dead) and left the conference with a more manageable scope to his story.
The rest of last week’s story conferences proceeded along similar routes. Sometimes the feedback was easy: insert a piece of dialogue that foreshadows the character’s conflict. Other times, it wasn’t. Helping writers nurture their strengths is a complex constellation of skills that I will probably never master. Anytime I felt stymied, I reached for Angela Stockman‘s fantastic Talking with Writers 2018. Talking with Writers devotes a section to responding to common problems in student writing. The strategy I used with Jorge came from Stockman’s work.
The ease with which I was able to apply this type of “See X? Try Y!” logic to student writing took me by surprise. As a committed member of the Northern Virginia Writing Project, I’ve always advocated for the power of writing alongside my students. And, following the work of Paul Thomas, I’ve also labored to try and become a scholar of writing. I’ve pursued composition pedagogy and history, written blog posts, and lead in-service trainings about the importance of knowing your theory.
However it wasn’t my understanding of composition or my status as a writer that helped me help my students. At least, I don’t think it was. Framed by schooling’s twin ideologies of efficiency and outcomes, every conference was compact and results oriented. Here’s what I see; here’s where you need to go; here’s a strategy to get you there. Does being a teacher of writing who writes provide any sort of advantage in this situation? Is this even the question to ask?
Normally, if my students are writing, so am I. It’s become an important part of my practice. It reminds me that writing exists outside of high-stakes accountability and the testing trap. It shows me that writing cannot be contained by formulaic essay constructions or meaningless assignments. But this method of instruction takes time, a teacher’s most valued currency. Every minute I spend writing alongside students is a minute I don’t have to confer with them.
During this last realistic fiction unit I chose not to write with them. I went with the more common alternative: work on something at home and bring it in as an example. I had more time to meet with my students, but I also felt disconnected, like a detached head floating above my students.
The debate over how best to spend class time isn’t new. In 1990, Karen Jost set off a firestorm within the secondary Language Arts community by arguing that the cost of writing with students outweigh the benefits. Students are best served by a teacher who meets with them and provides feedback, not by a teacher who labors over their own manuscripts. Jost lists the dizzying array of duties administrators and families expect of secondary teachers. With this list in mind, it is hard to imagine how teachers can confer with students, give daily instruction, provide written feedback, attend school functions, etc. and still find the time to sit down and write.
Ideally, we would do both. We would workshop their pieces with our students, in the process modelling authentic purposes, purposeful revision, and the writing life. As we did this, we would confer with students and do our best to guide them through the infinite complexity of composition. But there is not enough time to do both.
There is no answer. Or if there is, I don’t know it. But I do know that what we do shows what we value. The pedagogies we enact are inextricably linked to who we are as teachers, writers, and professionals. We make sure to share our reading lives with students. We give book talks, do read alouds, and converse with our kids about the books that matter to us. Can we say the same about our lives as writers?
Listening to teachers complain about student writing is exhausting. They can’t write; they don’t know where to use commas; they don’t capitalize every i; their spelling is atrocious. When this sort of narrative pops up in mainstream discourse, it’s often to complain about education’s failure to prepare kids for the workforce and to provide a platform for ‘back in my day, teachers made us diagram sentences/memorize parts of speech/etc.’ bloviating.
When these sentiments appear inside a school, they take on a slightly different tenor. Behind every complaint about a kid’s writing seems to be an underlying message about the failure of that child’s previous language arts teacher(s). It’s as if the teacher is throwing their hands up and proclaiming ‘Look at the mess I inherited! What am I supposed to do? How can I teach my content when these kids don’t even understand the basics!’
There’s a lot to unpack here. First, this nagging is counterproductive and can build resentment among teachers. Schools have more than enough finger-pointing as it is; engaging in ego-driven grandstanding serves no one.
To the teachers who regularly engage in this sort of carping, please stop. If you don’t like what your students are producing, then address it in the classroom. Regardless of content or grade, helping children learn to read, write, speak, and think is everyone’s responsibility. These complaints also elevate surface features (spelling, grammar, basic syntax) above all else.
The notion that mechanical perfection is the goal of writing instruction is deleterious to good teaching. It reinforces a deficit view of student writing by focusing on what a child did wrong. It trains us to approach student writing as something to be endured, some sort of gauntlet all language arts teachers must go through. It also encourages teachers and students to see writing as a series of levels to be mastered. Writing doesn’t care about scope and sequence documents or district-wide vertical alignment. It grows in fits and starts, evolving through recursive spirals of progress and regress.
Historically, evidence shows that teachers have been complaining about student writing since the first American universities. In The Rise and Fall of English, Robert Scholes examines primary documents such as university syllabi and commencement speeches to conclude that
English teachers have not found any method to ensure that graduates of their courses would use what were considered to be correct grammar and spelling. A number of conclusions can be drawn from this situation. One is that the good old days when students wrote “correctly” never existed. A second conclusion might well be that two hundred years of failure are sufficient to demonstrate that what Bronson called beggarly matters (spelling, grammar, capitalization, punctuation) are both impossible to teach and not really necessary for success in life. (p. 6)
This isn’t all to say that mechanical correctness doesn’t matter. The above notion that grammar and spelling are not “necessary for success in life” should be followed by “for certain people.” I’m reminded of an anecdote from Christopher Emdin’s For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood. Emdin recounts a conversation with a white teacher about the role of appearance. The teacher doesn’t understand why her students of color seem so focused on fashion and style. What do these things matter? After all, she says, she comes to school every morning in casual dress. Emdin replies that the ability to be treated professionally regardless of dress is a luxury many people of color can’t necessarily afford.
So of course grammar and spelling matter. Certain errors like nonstandard verb forms and incorrect subject/verb agreement can carry serious connotations of race and class. The legacy of mechanical correctness is steeped in racism, xenophobia, and class anxiety (for more on this, check out Mechanical Correctness and Ritual in the Late Nineteenth-Century Composition Classroom by Richard Boyd and The Evolution of Nineteenth-Century Grammar Teaching by William Woods). As teachers, we have the responsibility to help students understand the intersections of power and literacy. But this doesn’t mean chastising students for every mistake they make in their writing. Nor does it mean requiring every student draft to be mechanically perfect.
My go-to authority for how to treat errors in student writing is Constance Weaver. She urges us to see errors as a necessary component of growth. The following chart, taken from her Teaching Grammar in Context, sums up what a more compassionate and purposeful approach towards errors might look like.
Along with the solid tips outlined above, remember that students should focus on superficial edits using their own writing, on a topic they care about, during the final stages of the writing process.
If nothing else, stop complaining about student writing. It’s counter-productive to our mission and makes an already exhausting job that much more draining. If you’re not enjoying yourself, neither are they.
A little over a year ago I first wrote about family dialogue journals (FDJs). An FDJ is a notebook that travels between a student’s home and classroom. Teacher, child, and family member use the journal to engage in a written dialogue about curriculum, traditions, family history, etc. I decided to try FDJs out as a way to keep families informed of what was going on in their child’s English class. My first year using them was neither a success nor a failure. It was, however, a lot of work. I spent the year haranguing children to return their journals and lugging around tote-bags of notebooks so I could scratch out personalized FDJ responses during any spare moment.
So when it came time to map out my 2016-17 school year, I didn’t know if I had it in me to continue. This changed when I connected with Kathleen Sokolowski over at Two Writing Teachers in August. A Voxer conversation that started with a discussion of removing grades from the classroom turned into an extended back and forth about family dialogue journals. Kathleen decided to give FDJs a shot (check out her excellent post on the subject over at Two Writing Teachers). Her enthusiasm reignited my commitment. I wrote an FDJs Revisited post, cleared away any mental detritus, and prepared to try again in September.
It’s now November; my 7th graders have completed four rounds of FDJing. This year’s crop of students seem more amenable to the FDJ concept than last year’s. They brought in their notebook at the beginning of the year (without any nagging on my end. They’ve also been more apt to speak openly about their families and non-school lives.
Instead of asking students to read their FDJs in entirety in front of the class as I did at the beginning of last year (wince), I’ve asked students to share sections of their family’s responses in small groups. I’ve also given students the option to share a different piece of writing if they wish. This way everyone has something to read. Kids who don’t have their FDJs or don’t feel comfortable sharing them for whatever reason can still participate. These small tweaks, combined with the aforementioned shift in classroom attitude, have resulted in a much friendlier environment for sharing. What follows is a slightly more in-depth look into how I’ve been approaching Family Dialogue Journals this quarter.
Every other Friday is a designated FDJ day. By the time Friday rolls around I’ve managed to respond to every journal I’ve received over the two week period. Below are two random examples of my responses. As you can see, they’re not great. Sometimes the parent gives me something to work with, and often they don’t. But writing these replies is a two-way street, and I’m just as responsible for crafting interesting responses as families are. Probably more so, in fact. Right now as long as I’m replying to one specific thing from each FDJ entry I’m satisfied. Writing 60+ personalized responses (while not every student brings them in, this is almost a 100% increase in participation from this time last year) requires me to straddle the line between making it meaningful and getting it finished. Part of me relishes this challenge since figuring out that balance seems to be a crucial aspect of life.
I mentally divide FDJ day into two chunks: sharing last week’s response and writing next week’s letter. Instead of taking part in our normal class openers (we alternate between independent reading and notebook time), I ask students to find something to share with their group. If they have their FDJs they read their family’s most recent response and select up to four sentences to share. I’ve learned that students need these few minutes in order to decipher handwriting, mentally prepare to read out loud, and figure out what they want to share.
When everyone is ready, I kick things off by reading my own family’s response. Last year my mom was kind enough to write back and forth with me, and this year my dad has taken over the duty. Once I read my dad’s response I have a few students share connections, summarize, etc with what I read. I expect students to do this for each other, so getting everyone warmed up with my own FDJ works well. Then it’s their turn. Every group of four reads to one another using the following protocol:
This protocol helps group members stay involved by requiring them to respond in a particular way (I enjoy thinking protocols. The National School Reform Faculty’s website has a ton of good ones). I do my best to stay on the sidelines during this time, planting myself in the middle of the room and dividing my attention between every group.
After everyone has shared, we get ready to write our next letters home. Although I change the exact mechanics each time, I like to make sure the students talk before they write. Sometimes we use chalk talk activities where students move silently throughout the room and reflect on the last two weeks’ worth of instruction. Last time I sorted everything we’d done into four categories (see below).
Then students picked the category they wanted to write about and met up with other students interested in the same topic. The goal is to help each child come to the page ready with some ideas. Once we’ve brainstormed and bounced ideas off of one another, it’s time to write.
I show them the next letter I’ll send to my dad. I like to color code my writing; it helps me highlight the different elements I want the students to include.
A much better way to do this would be to engage students in some type of letter genre study. What common elements can we find in typical letters? What kind of information do authors include? How do they convey that information? What purposes do we write letters for? etc. But I’m approaching FDJs in baby steps, and what we’re doing now gets the job done.
What students choose to say about class and what they’ve been doing is always illuminating.
Students end their letters by coming up with a question to ask someone at home. Ideally every child’s question relates to what we’re studying in class. Right now, however, I’m pretty much giving them free reign over what they ask. By the time students finish writing their letters the class period is just about over. The process ends when I send out an email reminder to parents that afternoon (the first of three reminder emails per cycle).
So far the FDJs are mainly functioning as a form of increased school-family communication. This is the most basic of purposes. My next goal is to use the family dialogue journal to engage parents with questions related to the content of the course. By the time I write my next FDJ post in a couple months I’ll hopefully be able to speak on using the FDJ as a instructional resource.
How do you communicate with families? What methods do you use beyond report cards and signed quizzes/tests?
Welcome to the Northern Virginia Writing Project’s 2016 Invitational Summer Institute! I’ll be blogging the demonstration lessons and the various activities occurring during our four-week duration. Find out more about the NVWP and the National Writing Project.
Today’s second presentation comes from Steph Lima. It explains how to use student-centered questions in the classroom.
Quickwrite: Write about your successes and challenges with either small and / or large group discussions.
Oh, boy. Discussion is something that I really need to work on. I’m acceptable at it, but nowhere near great. Right now I can only think of my deficits in this area. I need to work on finding the right balance of creating guiding questions and having a direction in mind vs. allowing a discussion to grow organic legs that allow it to move wherever. I know that it helps to write out a few sequenced questions before hand, to frame questions in affective ways, to begin with real-life scenarios, and to summarize/paraphrase student responses, and to help connect students to each other during the discussion. Perhaps some of my weakness comes from my fear of sustaining a whole class discussion for any length of time. I’m always so afraid children will get squirrely and bored and that the introverts will disappear.
We share out. Someone talks about how their own school experiences played a role in this. This gets me thinking. It’s hard for me to remember a time when I felt confident participating in a large scale conversation. This also relates to a larger feeling of alienation that I experience whenever talking about academic/intellectual things.
Stephanie tells us about the origin of her presentation. She was unsatisfied with the quality of student discourse, and she felt she was enabling it. Heads are nodding. She decided to revamp how she approached class discussion. She divided questions into three types:
She spent time with students going over questions, writing them, and categorizing questions that students brought in. This reminds me of the importance, again, of modeling and teaching the academic moves we expect children to do. Asking questions and conversing is actually a complex skill, one that requires multiple layers of cognition.
After students brought in their self-generated questions, they took turns passing them around, reading each other’s questions, and annotating. Then Steph had the students pick a few questions that weren’t theirs to answer in writing. Students then picked one of their answers to discuss with the small group. Then, after that, she opened it up to the whole class. By talking it out in small groups first, every student went into the whole-group with a variety of talking points. The power of constructivism!
Now it’s our turn. Steph passes out copies of “The School Children” by Louis Gluck. She says it offers a rich variety of analyses.
We read twice and then annotate for whatever we notice. Next we write as many questions as we can, keeping the previous levels in mind. After that we write our best two on sticky notes and put them in a pool on our group’s table. We pick two (that aren’t ours!) and then write answers to them. No one is speaking yet. After writing, then we begin sharing out our questions and answers with our group members. Holy smokes this poem is amazing!
This reminds me of a) the value of writing before discussing and b) how this sort of ‘write questions – put them in the center for everyone’ technique can be way more useful than ‘everyone look at each other and brainstorm out loud.’ This way there’s less pressure and I can come up with ideas at my own pace and even pick out from among my ideas the best ones to share out. Each group discusses. Zone of Proximal Development in full effect!
We share out. Many of us cry out to hear what the poem is “about.” Steph wisely stays mum on the subject. We often tell children “it’s not about the answer.” We must resist this temptation ourselves. Steph ends by telling us she has the kids write about and reflect on why they chose the questions they did, and etc. This approach was way more generative than her previous discussion techniques.
I cannot WAIT to do this next school year.
Welcome to the Northern Virginia Writing Project’s 2016 Invitational Summer Institute! I’ll be blogging the demonstration lessons and the various activities occurring during our four-week duration. Find out more about the NVWP and the National Writing Project.
Our final day of presentations begins with Sara Watkins talking to us about how she uses authentic writing in her high school classroom.
Quickwrite: Think about a writing assignment you’ve given that your students enjoyed. Describe the lesson: what was it? What was its purpose? Who was the audience for the students?
Towards the end of the year I ran the students through a Flash Fiction mini-unit. We read examples, took them apart to see what made them tick, and tried to figure out what the genre was all about. Students then created their own examples of Flash Fiction. I had them concentrate on conflict types, economy of language, and otherwise following the genre rules we discussed. I wanted the students to gain practice with honing in on various conflict types, working through plot elements, and figuring out how to say a lot with a few amount of words. The audience, unfortunately, was just the class. By the end of the year students knew that pretty much anything they wrote would be put up on the walls to be read and discussed with classmates.
BTW, authentic writing is pretty much any genre of writing that is “found in the real world” and written for an audience outside of the school. Authentic writing creates links to the community. Writing for an authentic audience helps children believe in the power of their own voice and their own story. Here are some examples of genres of writing used by non-teachers:
Sara passes out a Kelly Gallagher sheet on approaching one topic in 18 different ways. The left hand column represents six prominent purposes available for a topic. The right hand column offers some guidance on how to get started with each purpose.
Sara shows us a model of her own writing. She splits her favorite topic (dogs!) into the six purposes. Each purpose contains at least three topics about dogs. Yet another successful example of the basic guided release model (teacher walks the class through an already completed/in process example to show basically show students what to do. Then students are encouraged to do their own). Now it’s our turn to do the same! Here’s my example. I didn’t finish it in time. Sorry about the poor lighting.
We share out. It’s amazing what a wealth of information can come from just a single topic! Even if some of my/out ideas don’t fit squarely into each category, that doesn’t matter. What matters is generating tons of student-centered ideas from a single student-centered topic. The classroom is crackling with ideas and laughter.
I can’t wait to use this in my class this year. She ends up with a list of resources.