Last week I learned a valuable truth: Even when we think they are not listening, sometimes students get it.
Let me back up.
The week before last I attended a department meeting where our district ELA coordinator shared the National Writing Project’s Case for Good Instruction, information I learned at my National Writing Project Summer Institute in ’09. It details the differences between When Writing is Assigned and When Writing is Taught. The discussion around me was interesting and peppered with excuses. I left wondering how teachers would answer these questions if they were on a quiz. How would you?
In your ELA class, do students:
- have opportunities to create topics that matter to them?
- understand audience and purpose for papers because they are specifically identified in assignments?
- see you spending time teaching writing skills and strategies?
- get writing models, assignments, and strategies to guide each of the different writing tasks?
- reflect on significant growth — or lack of it — in specific writing skills?
- hear words of encouragement cheering them on to revise, edit, and improve — and to correct drafts and then resubmit?
- think about what they write through brainstorming, free writing, role-playing, discussion, or other prewriting activities?
- celebrate what they, and you, write and make efforts to display and publish it?
I think the biggest excuse we give for leaning on assignments rather than acting on instruction is TIME.
“I can’t let students choose topics because they don’t know what to choose.”
“I can’t teach this novel if it takes so long to write a paper.”
“I can’t do my research paper if I give them time to resubmit. It already takes so long to grade the finished product.”
Maybe you are right. Maybe we have to give up things that we think are best practices for things that are better practices.
Student choice in writing topics is better practice.
Writing instruction with effective models, strategies, time to talk, and time to write are better practices.
Helping students revise, edit, and improve their writing during the writing process with a keen sense of audience and purpose are better practices.
Our students need time. They need our time. They need our attention and our careful consideration about the things that matter to them. We may have to let some things go in order to give our students what they need.
We learn valuable truths when we do. Last week my students performed (or presented) their poetic arguments. We spent weeks choosing topics, watching video performances, analyzing lyrics for structure and craft, thinking, drafting, talking, revising, studying models, reading each other’s writing, giving feedback, practicing mini-lessons on concrete details and using abstract language to create jaw-dropping imagery.
We were a community of writers, united in a task uniquely our own.
And that is the difference between When Writing is Assigned and When Writing is Taught.
During all that time, I didn’t think Stephanie was listening. She sat at her table, barely talking, sometimes writing, always sad. Then right before Christmas break I sat down and we talked. She showed me her draft, and it scared me. I knew she’d been depressed — her grandmother died at the beginning of the year, and the light left Stephanie’s eyes. I listened to her share her sorrow, her anxiety, the weight of her world , and I gave her my cell phone number with the promise she would call if her boots got too heavy. Thankfully, they didn’t.
Every one of my students who presented their poems sparkled with pride as they faced their classmates, even the ones whose knees knocked in fear. They wrote from their hearts about issues that matter to them personally. They wrote the most important arguments about mistaken perception, holding grudges, self-hate and self-love, parental control and uncontrolled parents, lying and how we’re programmed to label, Black Lives Matter and dying white privilege. They wrote about better education and the stress of getting educated, absent fathers, loving fathers, and parentless children and alcoholics who should have put down that drink at 21.
They wrote about sticking together.
And they wrote about self-destruction and depression and monsters. So many of them wore grooves in the floor with the spikes that hold them in place until the sadness drags them down under. They broke my heart.
Writing to heal is better practice.
Please enjoy Stephanie’s poem. She calls it “Smile.”
Many students chose video presentations over live performances. I published several this morning on the 3TT Facebook page. Take a look.
Please share your thoughts on teaching writing. Leave a comment.
Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 3 to the Fighting Farmers at Lewisville High School. She adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus Christ: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all love higher and harder than we think we can. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass.