Writing Workshop News
Issue 40: Wading Through the Waters . . . of Writing
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” ― Søren Kierkegaard
Reflecting back on my experiences as a teacher of writing, I’m thinking about all the hours I spent poring over student writing, filling the pages with red ink. I would love to say my remarks sounded like, “Wow, the dialogue and feelings you expressed right here made me feel as though I was right there in the moment with the character,” or “Your introduction immediately hooked me as a reader!” but that wasn't the case. Instead, the majority of my comments simply said, “Fix this,” or “Does this make sense?” with only a few “Interesting . . .” sprinkled in. I vividly remember filling students' pages with note after note, then returning them to eager, hopeful writers whose expressions immediately turned to disappointment. As they glanced over their papers, I can now imagine how overwhelmed they must have felt, thoughts of, “Where do I even begin?” or perhaps, “There’s nothing here worth salvaging. Why bother to write anything when she’s just going to tear it apart?” Why do I assume such negative thoughts were running through their heads? Because I saw one too many of those same papers filed in the garbage can within moments of being returned and engaged in numerous conversations with writers about working together to polish and revise their work.
To be fair, at the time I truly believed that the way I was teaching writing was the way to help kids become better writers. I was strong in my convictions about the way writing should be taught and poured my heart and soul into moving my writers forward. My practices were based on what I knew and the way I had learned. I didn't know what I didn't know, and more importantly, I didn't realize that engaging in writing myself was such an integral part of teaching writing.
My world started to change when I began my journey as the PK-5 Literacy Coordinator. Through conversations with colleagues and curriculum investigations for the Reading Study Team, I discovered research to support a way of teaching writing that made sense to me, research from whom I now know are the gurus in the field: Lucy Calkins, Donald Graves, Kelly Gallagher, Ralph Fletcher, Katie Wood Ray, and Amy Buckner. The more I read, the more excited I felt about the possibilities for our writers and the more I wanted to learn about how to create a positive writing culture within our schools. I began to reflect on my teaching practices from prior years, and I began to wonder. . . Where did I get the idea that I had to tear writers down in order to build them up? Why did I think that filling writers' papers with red ink would help them improve? Did I really believe that correcting students' papers was the best way to help them grow as writers, or was I just taking away their voices and making them sound like me? So many questions that just lead to more questions. Of course my intentions were good. I wanted to help my writers achieve their full potential, whatever that might be, but I started to question my practices and my whole belief system around how writing should be taught. At the time, I didn't understand the importance of a compliment or the difference between coaching and correcting. I didn't realize the impact of focusing on just one thing to guide writers in their journeys toward independence while working to build their repertoire of skills and strategies.
Ongoing research and collaborative conversations with Reading Study Team members and Greater Madison Writing Project colleagues have transformed my belief system and increased my knowledge around best practices. These experiences have taken my learning to a deeper level and push me to explore further:
- How can I clearly articulate a writer's strength rather than just saying, "Good job," or "This piece of writing is really great," since neither of these will move the writer forward?
- What questions can I ask to help writers clearly understand how to take their strength one step further?
- How can I frame those questions so writers know exactly what action they need to do next?
- What picture books might serve as mentor text models to hook kids not only as writers, but also as readers?
To all the writers whose spirits I may have crushed early on in my teaching career, I'm sorry! I try to reconcile my feelings of shame with the fact that I was new, and I was doing the best I could with the knowledge I had. Thankfully, through reflection, research, and collaborative conversations, I have become aware of all the opportunities out there to become a better writer and teacher of writing, and so I have taken action. As we all know, being a teacher means being open to change and willing to grow. Just like my students, I am a work in progress.