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Category Archives: Common Core Writing

Want to RENEW! Get the book by @ShawnaCoppola

I have never written a book review. (Okay, maybe that’s not true. I think I remember writing one in 4th grade over a biography of Marie Curie, the first biography I ever read.)

I have never written a review of a teaching book. But I am going to try.

I am a teaching book junkie. I have stacks of them, but I rarely read the whole of them. I cannot even tell you why, and I admit there is great irony here because as I write this, I am also trying to write my own book for teachers (I have been for four years, sigh.) If I ever get it written, I hope you’ll read it.

In the mean time, I have to tell you about Shawna Coppola’s new book RENEW!

I read the whole of this book in one afternoon! Thank you, Shawna, for writing so much of my own thinking about “Becoming a Better — and More Authentic — Writing Teacher.”

Shawna’s voice sings with passion and positivity. She paints the pages with possibilities! I know, I am gushing (and that’s probably too many p’s.) But here’s the thing —

I know so many ELA teachers who do know know how to teach writing. I know many more who are not confident teaching writing. I know even more who are not writers themselves, so it’s no wonder that teaching writing is difficult. Teaching writing is hard. A book like RENEW! not only gives us a starting place, it gives us desire.

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I am doing a lot of thinking lately around the idea of transcending. How do we go beyond our limits into something more, something better, something real and sustaining?

Let me share with you some of the passages I marked in RENEW!. I think you’ll see why this book is a must read for any teacher who needs a bit, or a lot, of renewal when it comes to teaching students to write.

“. . . if we are truly willing to honor the individuality of our student writers, the RENEW!uniqueness of each community of learners, and the ever-changing nature of our global landscape, we must continually rethink, revise, and renew our practice. Otherwise — to paraphrase Dewey — we rob “today’s students of the tomorrow today’s students deserve” (10).

“Broadening our ideas about what writing “is” can be scary, as if we are opening up a Pandora’s box. But in all reality, continuing to teach our student writers through a narrow, outdated lens — one that, in overvaluing written composition, does not accurately tell a story about the world of writing beyond most schools and classrooms — harms their development as writers by limiting the kinds of composing they are exposed to and encouraged to practice” (51).

“Teaching our writers how to develop their own tools is infinitely more sustainable than using preexisting tools. Quick survey:  How many of you use the graphic organizer your sixth-grade teacher taught you to use to write a persuasive piece? That graphic organizer may have been helpful to you then (although I doubt it was helpful to 100 percent of your classmates), but how useful is it you now?” (62).

“What message or “story” are we sending our student writers with a single overall score? Not only does it imply that their worth as a writer can be whittled down to one letter or number (which itself can mean different things for different teachers and even within different units of study), but that the worth of writing itself can be whittled down this way” (73).

“. . . readers of writing are human, an done person’s response to a composition may not perfectly align with another’s (If it did, what a drab, boring world we’d be living in!)” (79).

“Which is more likely to help students learn:  offering them specific feedback about their work, behavior, or performance, or slapping a score on a piece of paper?” (82).

“. . .when we engage in a semi-regular habit of writing, we can much more genuinely speak to those incredibly fantastic moments that writers experience on occasion, like the amazing feeling of completing a particularly difficult draft or writing something that makes a reader spontaneously laugh out loud. Anyone who’s ever taught a group of students of any age knows that when we are faking our way through something, or at the very least “phoning it in” by only engaging on a superficial level with what we are purporting to teach, students can smell our lack of authenticity a mile away. They know, even subconsciously, that they are being sold a decidedly moldy bill of goods” (92).

That’s all well and good, right? But here’s the beauty of Shawna Coppola’s book — she gives us the research that supports each of her positions AND she gives charts and graphs and resources to help us rethink, revise, and renew our approach, instruction, and practice as we become better teachers of writing. This book is chock full of everything good when it comes to writing instruction. It is a book I will return to again and again.

I hope you’ll read it. I hope you’ll share it with every ELA teacher you know. Really, it is just that good.

 

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 4 (new prep in ’17.) She loves talking books, daughters’ weddings (two this year), and grandbabies (five). She also loves facilitating PD for other teachers making the move into a workshop pedagogy. Amy adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all aim higher. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass. And she really hopes you will follow this blog!

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Mini-Lesson Monday: Friendly Competition

Having just watched my beloved Green Bay Packers hand the game to the Atlanta Falcons, my belly is full of delicious chili, but my heart is heavy. Now, I’m watching the Cubs possibly beat Cleveland and getting an odd thrill over a game I have absolutely no stake in. I’m not usually such a sports enthusiast, but all the excitement has me thinking.

img_6450The thrill of competition, win or lose, can make the ordinary far more fun. This typical Sunday night, for example, involved good friends, good food, and a good amount of jawing about a sport none of us have ever played, but still feel the need to critique. Any other Sunday night would find me waist deep in student papers. A different kind of fun, for sure.

Competition in the classroom puts a spin on the ordinary as well. It’s been my experience that a little friendly competition can turn the most aloof high students into passionate, enthusiastic, albeit candy-crazed participants. When the “prize” is stickers, watch out. The stakes are suddenly cutthroat.

For this relatively ordinary mini lesson on narrative techniques, I took advantage of the fact that I have a class of 28 students. While there are countless techniques that a writer can use in order to advance the chronology of his or her piece, my sophomores were going to be focusing on the basic idea that chronology can be linear or nonlinear, utilizing techniques like foreshadowing, flashback, building suspense, and reflection.

One of my collaborative team members came up with the idea to have the kids make the anchor charts for the lesson (thanks, Weston!), and I ran with that img_6454idea for the active engagement section of the class.

Objective: After researching in small groups, students create anchor charts for narrative techniques related to chronology and use them to determine which techniques could apply to their own stories during revision of their current draft.

Lesson: Having researched their randomly chosen terms in small groups, students pooled their findings and created an anchor chart that included the name of the technique, a definition, a purpose for using the narrative tool, and an example or two. 

With a larger class, I was able to have two groups work with each term, meaning we could have a little friendly competition.

img_6448Students completed their charts and we distributed them around the room. With their small groups, students traveled to each poster pairing and took notes on the techniques, discussing with their classmates places in their own stories they could utilize the technique. In addition, students were deciding which poster they felt more accurately covered the technique and would fit in well with the logical detail needed for our classroom anchor chart wall.

There was a lot of great talk that followed and students writing notes and ideas down in their notebooks too. I loved listening to their ideas of how the technique could be incorporated in their stories and where/how it might best fit.

The voting process even made me smile. The class suggested that they should have an official delegate from each group come forward to vote and then hang the winning poster on the wall. It was very…democratic.

Follow-Up: Students worked during workshop time to identify the chronological steps taken in their papers already and then strengthen the purposeful inclusion of chronological techniques in their pieces. Next class period, we’ll be doing some peer editing involving the specific inclusion of these elements. That exercise and their final submissions will both involve assessment of the writing (peer assessment and self assessment) using the same rubric I will use to grade this portion of their papers.


Proficient Level Narrative Chronology:
The text creates a logical progression of experiences or events using some techniques—such as chronology, flashback, foreshadowing, suspense, etc.—to sequence events so that they build on one another to create a coherent whole.

How do you utilize friendly competition to engage students? Please feel free to share in the comments below. 


Mini-Lesson Monday: Narrative Analysis with StoryCorps

We all have a story to tell.

In fact as writers, we have countless stories to tell. We tell of our experiences, fears, hopes, dreams, and even those trivial events that sometimes add up to more “life” than we could have imagined.

We tell the stories of others too. Real and imagined people that speak to us in words we’ve heard and sometimes, in the words we long to hear.

I wax poetic with my students like this often, but especially early in the school year. I want them to feel my passion for the power of stories and encourage them to develop their own passion for expression. As Morris (protagonist from one of my daughter’s favorite children’s books The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore) beautifully states, “Everyone’s story matters.” 

With this in mind, my American Literature collaborative team (Shout out to Brandon, Catherine, and Erin!) worked this year to develop a unit of narrative writing that asks students to look at the stories they tell and how those stories can be interconnected. Everyone’s story matters, and in this case, they get to have even more meaning as students craft individual tales that relate to their chosen thematic focus.

Students, having already selected, listened to, and analyzed an episode of This American Life for elements of author craft in a narrative (hook, chronological/detail choices, and word choice), partnered up or formed a group of three, and selected a theme out of a hat (dangers of conformity, vanity as downfall, the power of choice, etc.) they would explore, both individually and in their groups.

The overarching assignment is to craft an individual narrative that fits the theme and ultimately orally record the stories in a podcast that highlights the interconnectedness of the individual work. Students are graded individually on their narratives, but the podcasts are a group effort and will be played for the class.

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Objectives — Students will listen to several examples of 2-3 minute stories from NPR’s StoryCorp in order to practice narrative technique identification and analysis one more time before drafting their own stories. Students will discuss and share their insights on narrative impact of what they heard in an effort to purposefully craft their own narratives.

Lesson  — According to their website the initiative of StoryCorp is to “preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world.” 

In class, we had spoken already about the power and purpose of stories and students had come up with some wonderful ways stories enrich and fulfill us. Stories:

  • explain, or attempt to explain, where we come from and/or why we are here.
  • allow us to express what we believe or hope.
  • reveal who we are or who we want to be.

I shared with students that we were going to listen to some short pieces that told unrelated stories on the surface, but each would link back to some of the reasons we tell stories at all. Students were asked to record what they heard in the hook, insights on which details were included and why, and word choice (all elements they will be scored on when writing their own narratives).

I started by playing a sample story and then walking them through my own analysis. “Traffic Stop” is a piece that details police brutality in 2009 against a black man who was raised by white parents. The piece pretty brutally (I did have to mute three or four seconds of the piece where a police allegedly uses a racial slur that is inappropriate for the classroom) relates the story of a young man who is pulled over by police, searched but cleared, and then is assaulted by police when he questions why the officers are searching his car.

After I played the piece, I projected some of my own analysis. The hook involved the young man’s mother saying that she never would have thought skin color would make a difference for her son, but she painfully learned she was wrong. Word choice vividly captured the pain, fear, and confusion of the young man who was beaten by police. The chronology includes context for the horror of the event, a play by play of the few moments of the traffic stop, and details about the young man’s mother seeing his injuries in the hospital. My analysis was that the elements chosen were specifically selected and organized to convey the disbelief that something like this could happen to an innocent person and the role that race played in the event.

We then listened to two more stories. Students wrote down their take-aways in their writer’s notebooks and discussed after each piece. We shared out ideas and pulled insights back to those class generated elements of why we tell stories.

Finally, I had students listen to one last piece, detail their analysis on a half sheet of paper and turn it in to me for some formative feedback.

Follow-Up — We are about to start mini-lessons on hook, chronology, word choice, and parallelism (thank you Common Core) in drafting these narratives. I plan to reach back to the insights shared during this class in order to help students make purposeful choices in crafting and revising their narratives.

Everyone’s story matters. 

What tools do you use to get students thinking intentionally about their writing craft? Please share your ideas in the comment section below! 

Try It Tuesday: Red Thread Notebooks

img_3173-1So much of a workshop philosophy centers on the assumption that reading and writing are forever intertwined.  Vocabulary, grammar, poetry–they’re all pieces of the puzzle that make up literacy and a passion for words, too.  It was with this in mind that I created Red Thread Notebooks.

The idea came from two places–one was Penny Kittle’s “big idea books” (found on page 8-9 of those handouts), which are reading response notebooks  centered around themes in literature.  The other was Tom Romano‘s “red thread” assignment, in which teachers had to write about which parts of our teaching philosophy would run through all of our teaching, like a red thread.

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This student booktalks The Selection in the “STRUGGLE” notebook.

So, when composition notebooks are just a nickel in the summer, I buy 60 of them each year.  My students and I begin the year by brainstorming themes and topics that are important to us–love, cell phones, faith, music, family, video games, death, high school, forgiveness, four wheelers.  We label our notebooks and use them all year long.

There are a variety of ways I invite students to write in these notebooks:

  • Vocabulary practice: list related words, synonyms, word associations, etc. similar to the notebook title
  • Skill practice: write dialogue, revise sentence structure, practice figurative language, craft descriptive writing, about the notebook’s title
  • Book talks: write about how the book you’re currently reading might add to a conversation about the notebook’s title
  • Grammar instruction: revise a sentence, imitate a paragraph, tinker with style, while writing about the notebook title
  • Free writing: write your thoughts and musings on the notebook title
  • Poetry: find an existing poem, craft your own poem, or create a found poem about the notebook’s title
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Hailey and Ryan practice dialogue in the “VIDEO GAMES” notebook after I teach a mini-lesson on its conventions.

Because these are shared notebooks, I ask students to refrain from using profanity in them or writing about any of their peers.  I don’t require names, but many students like to sign their writing.  Those are the only rules.

Once the notebooks have begun to fill up, students can refer to them to find book recommendations, writing topic ideas, or vocabulary words to add to their personal dictionaries.  They can also look for examples of skills practice, craft studies, or grammar lessons that we’ve done for additional guidance.  One year students even selected multigenre topics based on our red thread notebooks.

These notebooks are a lovely way to make permanent a yearlong conversation about literacy.  The topics change every year–Michael Jackson had his own notebook my first year of teaching, and this year Lebron James had one–but the opportunities to write, reflect, and make connections remain the same.

Do you think you’ll try Red Thread Notebooks next year?  Do you do something similar?  Please share in the comments!

Mini-lesson Monday: All Good Writing Begins with a Good Question

One of the hardest things I ask my students to do all year is choose their own topics. We start generating ideas on the first day of school. We watch video clips, read quotes and short passages, listen to poems, look at cartoons — and we write responses. We create various versions of writing territories in our writer’s notebooks. We have many ideas stored in our well-used notebooks by this time each year.

But with every writing task, students seems to always start the topic journey right back at square one, even when I remind them that they have a mine of ideas sitting in the pages of their composition books. I’ve decided that just like me they like the process of discovery.

My goal is to get them to move past topic discovery into writing discovery. Too often, students think they have to know what they want to say before they ever start writing. No wonder so many kids have a hard time approaching the blank page. (See NCTE’s 10 Myths of Learning to Write #4)

The last writing assignment my students complete each year is a multi-genre type piece wherein they show they’ve improved in the various writing modes we’ve practiced throughout the year. They have almost total choice in terms of what they write, and they have most of the choice in terms of the forms they write in.

I have just two mandatory suggestions (oxymoron intended):  one piece must be a Rogerian argument, and somewhere in their master piece, students must show they know how to use an academic database to find valid sources, and then they must use the sources in the correct context, and cite the sources correctly.

We look at a few mentor texts that use multiple genres within the same piece. Narrative, informative, persuasive — plus images and info-graphics, or other types of forms that present information, including videos and interviews. My favorite is the award-winning feature article, Snowfall: Avalanche at Tunnel Creek by John Branch.

Once students know their end-goal: the creation of their own multi-genre writing piece that shows off their writing journey for the year, they must choose a topic. Some will want to stick with a topic they’ve written about multiple times this year. Depending on the topic, and the student, I may be oaky with that.

This mini-lesson came about in an attempt to help students figure out a topic that they know enough about to ask questions but not so much about that they could answer all of them.

Objective:  Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge Levels, students will construct a list of things that make them wonder; they will formulate questions about a self-selected topic derived from their wonderings. They will then categorize the questions in sets that make sense. Finally, they will determine which questions may best be answered through a specific genre or form of writing.

Lesson:  I tell students that we are about to play in our notebooks. “Turn to a new page, and write a list of all the things you wonder about,” I say. They usually sit there writing nothing, so I get them started:  “I wonder if teens got paid to go to school if they would want to learn more.”

Most students start to write, but I keep wandering the room, stating things that make me wonder as students list their own wonderings in their notebooks.

“I wonder when the state of Texas will get wise to the lack of wisdom in state testing. I wonder why students choose to do their APUSH homework over AP English. I wonder if the Dallas Cowboys will ever win the Superbowl again.”

Once students have at least a half a page of wonderings, I ask them to talk with one another in their small groups. “Perhaps your peers will remind you of something else you wonder about. Add it to your list.”

“Okay, look at your list and zero in on one topic that you think you can find the answer to with a little bit of research. Now, let’s think all the way around this topic.”

I ask students which of my wonderings I should use as a model for their next step, and they tell me the one about the Cowboys. I write it on the board. “Okay, help me come up with questions that look at this from every perspective possible — like who has a stake in whether the Cowboys win the Superbowl again.”

When was the last time the Cowboys won the Superbowl?

Who led the Cowboys to the Superbowl in the past?

How many times have the Cowboys been in the Superbowl?

Is the Cowboys coach as good as the coaches in the past? Are the players as good as the players in the past?

What is different or the same about the NFL?

What do the Cowboys need to do to win more games?

Who would be a better quarterback than Tony Romo?

Does the current team consist of Superbowl quality players?

Which teams are in the way of the Cowboys going all the way again?

Some questions get silly — pretty sure the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders don’t matter all that much to the reality of getting to the Superbowl. Sorry, girls — but students get a hang of the idea. “Ask as many questions as you can think of. After you write a list of your own, ask your peers for help in writing others.”

Next, we need to put our questions in categories. I ask students to talk with one another and determine which of our questions about the Cowboys might go together. We decide we’ve got questions about 1. the history of winning the Superbowl, 2. similarities and differences in the game, the coach, the players, 3. current Cowboys, 4. the opponents.

We talk about what genres and forms might work to convey the best answers to our questions.

“Compare and contrast the differences. That’d be easy,” someone says.

“The history of the Cowboys’ past wins would be information, right?” another student says.

“What could be the topic of a persuasive piece?” I ask.

“The question about the ability of the current players. Easy.”

I tell students that they get the idea, and I charge them with reading through their questions and categorizing them into groups that seem to go together.

I remind them:  “All good writing begins with a good question.” And they’re off.

Follow up:  Students should use their questions and their categories to guide the choices they make as they write their end-of year multi-genre pieces. In conferences, I read through questions, helping students add to and clarify. I remind them that form helps determine meaning, so as they make choices, they need to think about the best way to share meaning with their intended audiences. Students will present their writing projects as their final exams.

Try it Tuesday: Thesis Statement Dissection

Buttering someone up is an idiom that has long made me smile. Perhaps it is my deeply rooted devotion to butter (the dairy state doesn’t play…you can’t live here if you dislike butter) or the visual of someone taking a stick of butter and applying it like deodorant, but either way, I buttered up my students the other day and it worked deliciously.

Basically, I slathered it on like this:

  • Remind students of how awesome they are at writing thesis statements because they have been doing it for years.
  • Have students apply their reviewed knowledge of quality thesis statements to their own papers in order to double check their awesomeness at this skill.
  • Elevate them to the role of “expert” in the area of thesis writing in order to have them make suggestions to their peers about clarity and depth of their awesome thesis statements. 

Underlying all of this was my firm knowledge, butter in hand, that many of their thesis statements were currently far from awesome. However, this certainly wasn’t because my students lacked the skills to clearly convey their ideas, it was most likely because they had procrastinated in writing their drafts, checked out to the warmer temperatures and sunshine, or hadn’t taken the time to really carefully reflect on what they had written in favor of working on something for just about any other class.

So basically, the issues of every paper written by a high school student in May.

In order to encourage some honest reflection and move their work forward, I employed the following strategy:

1. First, I shared with students a thesis statement I wrote to accompany an informative paper I was writing along with them. We talked about the different elements present in my sample and how they matched up with what students knew of writing complex thesis statements. One area we worked through together was my struggle with a negatively connotated word that was pushing my informative thesis statement in the direction of argument. Having students help me change the word, demonstrated what I was going to ask them to do in small groups shortly. (Much praise here and reminders of how awesome they already are at writing thesis statements.)

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Students work on their thesis statements in small groups, under the projection of the sample paper I wrote along with them

2.  Next, we reviewed the non-negotiable elements of effective thesis statements. I asked students to highlight their inclusion of those elements and/or comment on their papers with what was missing so they could return and revise. We included that an informative thesis statement needed to present non-debatable facts, organization of those facts into a logical roadmap for the paper, and inclusion of a “so what?” element to clarify purpose for their audience on the specific elements of the topic the paper would cover.  At this point, we circled back to my thesis statement and looked one more time with theses specific elements in mind. (Again, more buttering up in the form of high praise to their identification skills and encouragement to now apply that thinking to their own work)

3. I then asked students to spend ten minutes or so, writing their thesis statements on our mini whiteboards, revising as they went. They were to write notes on the side to indicate areas they needed help on or questions they had about the effectiveness of their statements.

4. With markers in hand, students then gathered in small groups, “presented” their thesis statements to their group members by reading aloud and asking questions, and then worked collaboratively to strengthen their sentences. (Before they got to work, I reminded them of how highly qualified they all were to assist others and how as a classroom of writers, each student could provide insight to his/her peers on improving the work)

Honest conversations around the room included such statements as:

“I see what you mean. That part made sense in my head, but it needs to move over here.”

“I like it, but I’m still asking ‘so what?’ Like, what’s your point about stereotypes?”

And my personal favorite, “Dude. That thesis is awesome. Can I steal that idea to have a dependent clause first? My audience needs to think about historical examples of Congressional corruption before they can really understand how bad it’s gotten.”

Dude. Did you just reference syntactical choices to more appropriately orient your audience for your paper? Mic drop.

 

While students worked in small groups, I was able to conference with several members of the class one-on-one. In addition, I noted a few kids I would need to pull into a small group during the following class period to continue guiding their work on these statements.

With the messiest looking whiteboards I have seen in quite some time, students returned to their seats and kept working on both their thesis statements and the necessary adjustments to their papers to reflect their revisions.

I could have easily reviewed the parts of an effective thesis statement and walked around to take a look at what kids had already written. But by helping students see each other and themselves as resources, most of the class improved their clarity and complexity significantly and my involvement was minimal.

In a community of writers, everyone is a resource. Sometimes it just takes a little grease, er butter, to get the parts moving and the collaboration started.

What are your ideas for helping students see themselves as writing resources in the classroom? Please leave your comments below! And, Happy Teacher’s Day! 

 

 

#FridayReads: Required Reading “Our Students Want to Write”

Confession:  I buy a ton of pedagogy books. I rarely read them all the way through. I blame it on my blossoming OCD. I can only take in so many ideas before I run out of space in my head to hold them all long enough to use them.

412bcpby4iol-_sx326_bo1204203200_That is not the case with this classic, suggested to me by my friend and mentor Penny Kittle, Learning by Teaching by Donald Murray.

I remember when Penny recommended it. She was in the DFW metroplex teaching a workshop, and I’d asked if we could meet up and talk about my writing. She graciously agreed, and we met at a Starbucks inside a Target. As always, Penny radiated positive energy. She told me about the work she was doing with Kelly Gallagher. I told her about my struggle trying to write a book, a book I am still trying to write.

I still cannot believe I had a writing conference — yet again — with Penny Kittle! (My first was during her class at The University of New Hampshire Literacy Institute the summer of 2013.)

At one point in our conversation, Penny paused and asked if I had read Don Murray’s book Learning by Teaching. I said no. At the time I hadn’t read any of his books, but I’d heard Penny talk about Murray with such affection, quoting him often. I knew this was a book I need to not just purchase, but one I needed to read. I’ve read and re-read and marked page after page.

Don Murray validates the moves I make in my workshop classroom, the moves I make

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My thinking while reading the essay “The Process of Writing” by Donald M. Murray

 

when planning instruction for my AP Language and Composition course. I have learned from those who learned from Murray, and his work reminds me again and again why teaching with student choice in mind works. Every time I feel like I fail, every time I get frustrated with the way an assignment flopped, or I didn’t reach a certain student what I’d hope to teach him, I turn back to this book of essays by Murray. (I did this recently after most of my students bombed an assignment, which was mostly my fault.)

Here’s an excerpt from Murray’s essay titled “Our Students Will Write –If We Let Them” published in North Carolin English Teacher, Fall, 1977. I probably break a copyright law by sharing, but I’ll risk it if it means freeing more writers. (See more about freeing writers in Penny Kittle’s piece “What We Learn When We Free Writers.”)

Our students want to write — but not what we want them to write.

Our students want to write of death and love and hate and fear and loyalty and disloyalty; they want to write the themes of literature in those forms — poetry, narrative, drama — which have survived the centuries. They want to write literature, and we assign them papers of literary analysis, comparison and contrast, argumentation based on subjects on which they are not informed and for which they have no concern.

We should see that their desire to write proves the vitality and importance of literature and literature-making in each generation, that language is central to the human experience, not just as a communications skill but as the best way to recall and understand experience. We tell our students the unexamined life is not worth living, yet we seldom allow those students to examine their lives firsthand through what is termed creative writing.

It is time that we, as a profession, not only support the reading of literature but the making of literature; that we encourage our students to write what they want to write and realize that what they want to write is more intellectually demanding, more linguistically challenging, more rhetorically difficult than the writing we usually require in the English class.

The biggest problem in the teaching of writing is ourselves. We do not encourage, allow, or respond to our students’ desire to write. We do not believe that our students can write anything worth reading, and they prove our prediction. Conditions will not improve until we realize that what we face is a teacher problem, not a student problem.

There are many important reasons to consider taking what is usually tolerated, at best, in the elective creative writing course and placing it at the center of the writing curriculum. Some of them are:

  • Writing about individual human experience motivates both the gifted and those we often consider disadvantaged. In fact, we may find that the disadvantaged aren’t in terms of experiences which can be explored through writing. Students who are not motivated by our lectures on the need for writing skills–they know the need does not exist in the lives they expect to live–still share the human hunger to record and examine experience. Students who are bored with papers of literary analysis or even incapable of writing such a paper at this state in their development may be able to write extraordinary papers based on first-person experience.
  • Students discover…that they have a voice, they have a way of looking at their own life through their own language. They discover and learn to respect their own individuality.
  • Through writing, the student increases his or her awareness of the world, and then works to order that awareness.
  • As students follow language towards meaning they extend and stretch their linguistic skills.
  • The experience-centered, doing nature of the writing curriculum will reach many students who are not comfortable with the analytical passive-receptive nature of the typical academic curriculum.
  • Creative writing gives students a new insight to literature. The study of literature is no longer entirely a spectator sport, but an activity which they can experience and appreciate.
  • The creative writing class may be the place where some students learn to read. Test results in many community colleges and other colleges of the second chance show that many students who test as not being able to read are also the best writers. They are able to read their own words and to perform the complex, evaluative techniques essential to revision. They learn to read by writing.
  • Students and teachers of creative writing rediscover the fun of writing. Art is, at the center, play, and perhaps that is the reason it is so little tolerated in the school. If it is fun can it be learning? Yes.
  • Finally, we should teach creative writing because it is more intellectually demanding than the study of literature or language as they are usually taught in the English class. This runs directly counter to the stereotype believe by most English teachers. IT is easier to complete a workbook on grammar, easier to tell the teacher what the teacher wants to know about a story than it is to use language to make meaning out of experience. The writing course is a thinking course, and it should be central to the curriculum in any school.

There is more. I believe Murray’s writing, like Penny’s books Write Beside Them and Book Love, should be required reading for every English teacher. I wish they would have been required reading in my education classes. For the first few years of my career, I struggled like many teachers I know with student engagement and learning while I taught literature instead of readers and writers. (Someday I’ll write about the Dickens I subjected my 9th graders to. It’s a sad sad tale of student, and teacher, woe.)

And someday I’ll finish this book I’m trying to write. I think Don Murray would want me to.

What books do you think should be required reading for all English teachers? I’d love to read your suggestion in the comments.

 

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