Sunday, March 1, 2009

Creating Great Writers

If your students are writing as much as you can grade, they're not writing enough to learn. If your students are writing enough to learn, you can't possibly grade it --
a paraphrase of Lief Fearn, Interactions

I have been thinking a lot about teaching writing, assessing writing, encouraging writing, stifling writing, and being buried under piles of the very same writing. In the end, what is it that makes our students strong writers but more importantly excited writers? It just might be a precarious balance of ...
  • assigning frequent writing that is at times on required topics and in required genres to push students out of comfort zones but is just as frequently, if not more so, on topics of students' choice in genres they feel fit the purpose the best

  • giving feedback that focuses on style and voice not grammar and mechanics while also expecting your students to write grammatically (and teaching them how to do so)

  • assigning regular writing and being sure that writing receives feedback (whether it is your feedback or peer feedback or the writer's self-reflection) within the week

  • focusing on specific writing skills through short, directed assignments (great introduction writing practice can mean just writing an introduction) yet expecting your students to write developed pieces the most -- specific skill development is necessary to write, but skill development in isolation does not equal strong and thoughtful writing

  • writing with your students even while you are also balancing the commenting and grading of your other class's papers that came in last week

I think there should be a national requirement that English teachers teach one less class than a typical load and use that "free" period for writing conferences, draft feedback, and grading. Yes, this will mean needing more teachers because each teacher will have a smaller student load (do not make the class sizes even bigger to "remedy" this -- that is subterfuge). Otherwise, teachers have to go into survival mode, knowing they cannot possibly work with the frequent writing of 150 students, and have their classes do less and less writing. The teacher does not like this choice, but what more can they do? And in the end, the students end up writing, and therefore growing and learning, less.


  1. I enjoy your ideas. I would add one more thought to your list. It's called the embedded research paper, an idea I gleaned from the English Journal. At any rate, it's using a research paper to write a creative piece (because nobody ever does research just for research sake). So... allow different types of writing assignments to culminate into "the big" writing assignment. I also wonder how, as teachers, we can experiment with different digital environments to influence different writing outcomes and expectations. I think blogs are great for reflective pieces and wikis are excellent for analytical pieces... and text messaging like Twitter or Facebook is great for slang. It's the whole code switching theory in a digital world. Anyway... I truly enjoy your thoughts and insights.

    Oh... one last thought. This is my first year teaching AP Literature and Composition. What I've come to realize is that my students really need to better understand thesis construction and voice more than grammar. I have my ideas for how to improve this next year, but your blog was a confirmation for me in this direction.

  2. I have been thinking about this all week, frustrated that I can't seem to find time to conference with all the "free time" in my students' schedules. So I am going to take some class time this week to do it as they decide what to send in for their FLS contest. Grrrr.

  3. P.C.,
    You offer even more to think about -- thanks. And you are indeed right on target with voice and development of ideas. I have found that the grammar does come (and I do teach it and expect it to be thought about), but it comes at different paces for different students. But if I make it the most important thing, then the rest starts to disappear, and they are not really writing any more. I hope you have had a great year with AP Lit -- I love the course because it is so skill-based and therefore allows for a lot of freedom for what to do with the students to engender the strong reading and writing expected. If you ever can spare the week in June, being an AP reader was the thing that really made me feel like I was on the right path with my AP course. (and you get paid!) If you ever have questions about AP, please let me know. I am glad I have "met" you.