Thursday, April 29, 2010

Writing for the World

Teaching is about helping students become more than just book learners. It is guiding them to be life learners. And that means that teachers, myself included, need to set up classrooms that are learning environments for everyone in that classroom - teacher included.

As a teacher, I believe that some of my best lessons have happened when I am also in the seat of the learner, learning right alongside my students. I've learned more about my own writing process as I've written with my students. I’ve learned that I have to commit to the writing process, not just to this or that essay, much like I ask my students to fully engage in writing as a process. I can’t just sit down at a computer and bang out a couple of pages, hurriedly assembled sentences and paragraphs. Like I ask my students, I need to remember that my written work is a reflection of who I am, of who I want to be. And so as I heard author James McBride once say, I must remember that “writing is rewriting.” As such, I must never look at a piece of my own writing as finished, and in turn, encourage students to return to their writing again and again and again. After all, aren’t the writers we remember those that looked at writing as a series of rewrites? Walt Whitman rewrote Leaves of Grass five times! Writing is a process that involves reflection, revision, and rewriting. Because I’ve recognized this in my own writing, I must open up space in my classroom for students to do the same. This means that I’ve had to stop assigning essays that students turn in only once, essays that I would labor over my commenting on but students either never read or did anything with the feedback.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve changed how I teach writing. Students can’t just turn in an essay to me. Instead, I ask my students to reflect on their writing goals following each writing assignment, contemplating how they addressed their previous goals with each assignment, reflecting on their progress as writers. Often times, I see essays multiple times, stressing each time that revision is not merely editing. And perhaps the biggest change to my teaching of writing involves who reads my students’ work.

Students are often asked to just write for their teacher. A single reader. What I’ve found is that the more I can open up my classroom to more authentic and meaningful writing experiences, the more invested my student writers are in the pieces they produce. The web has been immensely helpful in this process. Instead of turning in an essay on the themes of Elie Wiesel’s Night, I have students post their essays to our classroom blog site, where they can read each others’ work and give feedback. At the beginning of the semester, students write their own personal narrative essays on a core belief, in the style of NPR’s “This I Believe” program. I’ve found that when students share these essays with one another, post them on our class blog site, they generate an immense amount of feedback, and in turn, students ask to revise their essays. They ASK to revise! Later in the semester, I ask students to write editorials for our local newspaper, create web pages, and respond to each other using online discussion boards. When students learn that their writing is going to be seen by an audience other than just the teacher, they are more invested in the process of writing. They are engaged.
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