Sunday, January 8, 2017

Managing the Writing Classroom

   Most of the popular teaching techniques for teaching of writing are predicated on delightful optimism and rose-colored glasses. Don't worry about teaching to the test! Help every child discover the writer within! Everyone can be a great writer! If you just work on finding the joy in writing, every child will spontaneously write meaningful essays with sophisticated transitions!
    Being the deeply pessimistic person that I am, I can't believe these truisms. I have trouble getting to the end of an article about the teaching of writing without becoming consumed by guilt and worry, toxic feelings that I'm not covering enough, that I'm not keeping on pace with grammar, and that my students will do horribly on the next round of standardized testing.

    BUT I do have an optimistic inner voice, buried very deep and speaking very quietly. If I stand still enough and listen carefully enough, this optimistic voice tells me that there are some parts of my writing classroom that work, even for someone as deeply flawed as me, and that may be of use to other writing teachers.

    I'm going to write them down very quickly before I convince myself otherwise.

Clipboard Cruise
    While students are writing, I like to walk around the room with a clipboard. I write down different kinds of notes. Sometimes, I'm doing a progress check to see where students are in the writing process. On other days, I'm looking for patterns of student weaknesses or errors.

     I should probably put these notes in an organized form, or keep them in color-coded binders. Usually they just accumulate on my clipboard for me to peruse and consider as we move on in the writing project. Sometimes I forget about them until months later and find them and feel badly about myself.

    But my voice of optimism says that maybe the important part is not what I do with the notes, but that I take them at all. Taking the notes means that I am noticing what is going with the writers in my room. They are important in the moment, and I use each day's notes to plan for the next day's instruction.
Slow Writing
    In the traditional model of teaching writing, forms of writing steadily come down a conveyor belt of curriculum. The dutiful teacher looks to see what is next on the conveyor belt and teaches it.

    In slow writing, I still have to look at the conveyor belt to see which forms must be taught. However, I structure the class to work on several forms at the same time. Right now, for example, my students are doing background research for an explanatory essay about biomes. This essay won't be written until January, but students started researching biomes after Thanksgiving.

     The idea is that good writing can only happen with a wealth of knowledge and expertise, and that students need time to research and think about a topic before they produce. This is a slow method of writing, but it can help students to understand what it is to be a writer.

    As students were researching biomes they were also writing a narrative and doing some summarizing. Writers like to have several projects at a time to work on, because then they can procrastinate productively!

     I've worked with editors who have absolutely insisted that I make certain changes to my writing. As a teacher I do the same. There is a place for insistence, even nagging, in the writing classroom.

    For example, in our work with narratives, I had a student who didn't add any dialogue. This wasn't a stylistic choice, but a stubborn one. This student wanted to be done with the assignment and didn't want to add dialogue.

   I'm sorry, but no. I insisted. I made him un-submit his piece of writing to add dialogue.


   Reflective teachers of writing are sometimes hesitant to insist that students add or change things in their writing. "It's their writing--I don't want to interfere too much," is something that I probably said fifteen years ago.

   But nope. I need to find the right way to interfere. I don't want to be a hated editor, but I need to be a meddling teacher.

Looking Busy
     Any writing teacher will attest to the value of this! Sometimes during writing sessions I need to get out of the way to let kids write. However, students often want to talk with me or ask for help. I don't like to tell kids that I won't help them, so I get out work to do and sit at a student desk. For some reason, the fact that I look busy encourages students to go back into themselves and use their inner resources to solve a problem that they may have asked me about.

    You have to be cautious with this one, though. Look too busy and you'll find that there's a student on the other side of the room who has gone fifteen minutes without writing a word. I like to punctuate periods of "looking busy" with clipboard cruises to keep students guessing.
    I like to end writing sessions with two questions:

Can anyone tell us about a writing problem that they solved today?

Does anyone have a writing problem that they couldn't solve today?

    These questions never fail to lead to interesting discussions. As I hear students talk about how they solved writing problems, I can start to feel--maybe-- a bit less pessimistic.

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