As I spend my summer tweaking lessons and units (and in the case of my seventh grade classes, completely revamping my entire curriculum) a few recurring thoughts run through my head as I check out each new website, blog, pin, book, and article:
1. There are so many great ideas out there. So many. I want to do all the things.
2. There are so many terrible ideas out there. So many. Please, can we all agree to stop doing these things?
3. So much of the material out there regarding writing is only about assigning writing rather than teaching writing.
It's the third thought that bothers me. I can handle thinking other ideas are terrible because maybe I just don't understand the context behind them, or maybe they aren't lessons that fit with my teaching style or my students. But number three is one of those things that gnaws away at the back of my mind, something I can't let go. Something that I consider unforgivable on my nit-picky list of English Teacher Commandments: Thou Shalt Teach Writing, Not Simply Assign It.
Assigning writing is what seems to happen more frequently in schools. This is not limited to English classrooms, and I would argue that most writing in content areas is assigned rather than explicitly taught (probably because content area teachers were never taught how to teach writing). Teachers come up with a writing assignment. This assignment can range anywhere from totally fun and creative (italics can stand in until we get a sarcasm font, right?) to complete drudgery. Assigned writing does a decent job of hitting standards and aligning to rubrics and learning goals. Assigned writing is introduced in one (maybe two) class periods where students are told: what they will write, what parts are required, and how it will be graded on a rubric. Students are most definitely shown an already-completed near-perfect example of the assignment before they begin. An ironclad due date is set in stone. Depending on the assigner (I mean, teacher) the students might then have some time in class to flounder around and try to write this paper by pulling it magically out of their butts, they might have some hoops to jump through like showing note cards as evidence of work along the way, or they might simply be told that writing is homework and it better be ready on the due date.
What part of that involved teaching?
Now, I agree that students need a variety of writing assignments and activities to grow as writers. And I get it that at the college level, students are expected to know how to write based on being given a topic and a due date. But this idea that in middle and high school writing instruction becomes more about assigning rather than teaching really bothers me. Our job is to get them ready for college and jobs where they'll be expected to know how to write. Our job is to show them how, not expect them to learn by forcing them into the exact situation they'll face later.
Teaching writing takes endless amounts of class time. The writing still aligns with standards and learning goals, but the writing itself is more fluid and involves choice for each student to make it his or her own. Teaching writing does not happen in one or two days; it happens every day, little by little. Each week can focus on a certain genre or skill within a larger genre. Maybe the first day starts with an introduction to the type of writing and a mentor example from a published source. The class can discuss what's successful with the writing and how it meets the goals of whatever standard is being discussed. They can pick out powerful parts of the writing that stick out to them, and interact with the piece as readers. The next day, with more mentor texts (sentences, paragraphs, pages; any length of writing can be a powerful mentor), the class works together to attempt the skill, whether it's constructing a strong argument, or using realistic dialogue in a narrative. This is mimicking; not quite their own yet. This can be in partners or groups, and should be shared informally during the class period so that the class as a whole can compare it to the mentors, to the learning goals, and reflect on where they are struggling. The teacher is writing with them. The teacher is sharing with them. The teacher is struggling with them. Once they've had some practice together, then the next day can be the first attempt on their own. The teacher is writing with them, displaying his or her work, talking them through potential difficulties. The teacher knows how frustrating the writing is because the teacher has to do it too, and in front of an audience, no less. This drafting can last for as many days as needed. Teachers and peers conference over the writing, giving suggestions and asking questions. The student reads his or her writing so many times over the next few days or weeks that soon they have parts of it memorized. The teacher comments on the writing. The writer reflects. This all happens in the classroom, during class time, because what is more important when teaching writing than actually providing the time it takes to write? The due date is set as the teacher gauges progress, but it is fluid and students who need extensions can receive them. And after all that, if the student fails to meet standards on that piece of writing, then he or she can rewrite. We don't force authors to publish bestsellers with only one chance, and we damn well better not expect more from teenagers than we do from professionals.
Teaching writing is so much more than coming up with a new, creative idea for an assignment. It's more than telling students what is required for a certain genre. It's more than telling them to add more of something, or take something out.
Teaching writing is more than giving an assignment, it's about showing the process by living the process in the classroom, each and every day.
Teaching writing can be infuriating and endless and frustrating, just like writing.
I teach 7th and 8th grade English in rural Iowa and hope to reflect, connect, and share with other English teachers. Iowa Council of Teachers of English Executive Board member. Iowa Writing Project superfan. UNI MA:TESS graduate.