Writing this year has been fun and I learned a lot.
Over lunch with a friend, I was asked about writing. Specifically, how do I get students to turn in good work? My colleague was desperate.
He had been working all year toward a paper that would represent what his students had really learned. Research-based, the paper was the culmination of all his teaching. It was a big assignment, and students were strained to get everything done. On top of that, he had been dealing with some really bad first drafts.
His frustration was not surprising. I was familiar with the refrain and sympathized with him. In fact, most English teachers are bemoaning the lack of development in their writing classes. Teachers blame everything from the generational conflicts students face to the bad curriculum.
In my case, the opposite is true. My students have shown deep growth and development in their writing this year. How? My whole process for growing students into writers is rooted in how I had learned to write.
My earliest experience with writing was watching my grandmother's hand write newspaper articles. I was maybe ten when I first tried writing with her.
She would assign me a task to mimic whatever newspaper assignment she had. I remember that once she was assigned to interview a local development company in my small town. She took me along and gave me an assignment. My assignment was to write a story about the employees at the company. While she interviewed the boss, I carried on a long question-answer session with a secretary and planner.
At home, we both took out our notebooks at opposite ends of the table and wrote. Her first rule was to free-write as much as possible. Then, make a list of words special to the article.
Once that list was created we began planning our writing. I would later learn in school about the outline, but the process my grandmother and I used seemed less formal. We were writing, together. It was special and significant, a positive experience that strongly supported my growth as a writer, but more importantly, it was educational.
After thinking about how I had learned, I knew I had to adopt a similar approach in the classroom. I read Penny Kittle’s book Write Beside Them. In my class, we write a lot, and never without a purpose. The first lesson I can teach kids is that “writing without a purpose is only for you.”
We develop a reason to write. It can be to better our understanding of the characters, to compare the use of language, or to discover deeper meaning. One thing that I make sure of, it’s not just writing for a grade. We do not write for grades. Grades are motivation killers. They force anxiety into a process already filled with dread and apprehension. Though a grade is ultimately assigned, it is never the purpose for writing.
From day one, I delete the phrase, “Write an Essay.” I replace it with, “let us see if we can write this out.” Much like my grandmother, I sit with my students and write. We discuss writing on equal terms, share ideas, and develop writing together. I can even attest that my writing is growing every time.
This shared writing experience bonds us, and it also creates growth. Why? Because students do not know they are growing. Because we don’t focus on the grade, students take much more pride in their writing. The process is very similar to the one my grandmother taught me: free-write, brainstorm vocabulary, outline, and then begin drafting. Sometimes what was written in the free-write can be shaped; other times it is thrown out and writing begins from the outline.
Writing in multiple spaces is important for students as well. We take nature walks and stop to write. These walks often produce imagery or interest in a topic. So far, our walks have produced several poems, an essay on lake care, and a short story about Robbie the Squirrel. Each time students bring me their writing, proud to have accomplished the work.
What do students say? “I like writing in your class because it seems to be important. You are not just making us write.”
“Writing this year has been fun and I learned a lot. It is easier when I am writing about things I like.”
“I like writing and never thought I would. It doesn’t get me upset. I learned a lot by watching you make mistakes and get things wrong. If the teacher has problems then, of course, I will.”
Over lunch was not the place to share all of this, but I left my friend with one bit of advice. “How do you write? Think about that, and then use it as a filter for what you expect your kids to do.” The important lesson is that they learn to express themselves, and the best way to teach that is alongside them.
Our students need to see us, too, making mistakes, struggling, and persevering. That is how they learn the truth about composing, and truth enables them to see themselves growing into writers.
Grover Welch is a ninth grade English teacher at Newport, Arkansas. He has a MSE in Reading from Arkansas State University.