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.


Anonymous said...

Ms. Ward, I lament the fact that you didn't learn grammar as it was taught when I was in school in the 40s and 50s. Of course, it wasn't your fault that some higher-ups decided to discontinue the long-standing intensive study of grammar rules and diagramming. This action began what I see as the downfall of the teaching of English in the United States. Language isn't just a mumbo jumbo of words on a page. Language has form and function. When those in power determined that we didn't need to know grammar in order to write, they, in effect, gutted our language. They cheated you by not giving you, in effect, an X-ray of language that shows you how to put the bones together to produce clear, concise, and effective sentences, paragraphs, and essays. It's true that students kept on writing papers. Most of them, however, didn't do it well. They didn't know how to write well because they had little to no grammar instruction. As new teachers entered the system, they came in without knowing the fundamentals of grammar themselves. The void this created fractured our language so badly that now no one seems to care to know the difference between lay/lie, its/it's, or affect/effect. They don't know, nor do they care, that 'everyday' is an adjective, whereas 'every day' is an adverb. If you teach your students these few things, you've made a great contribution to their education. However, I'm not sure you should be trying to teach grammar without working on your own skills first. I've read some of your posts and have seen sentence construction and punctuation errors that I wish I hadn't seen (each others' instead of each other's, for example).

You have a difficult job working with students in today's environment. I admire your desire to teach and wish you well. As a teacher, you deal with much more than commas and misspelled words. The administration, parents, and discipline issues take a large part of your time and energy. I understand that. If you have any spare time, maybe you wouldn't mind using it to read some books on grammar. My latest favorite one is Woe Is I by Patricia T. O'Connor. It's a nice addition to my small collection.


Ms. Ward said...


Thanks so much for your comment. I wonder if you might have read my much earlier post on grammer (just kidding - grammar).

I did learn grammar in school, just not as a pull out lesson. Grammar was not taught in units isolated from reading or writing. Instead, when I was going through elementary school, whole language was the dominant pedagogy.

I see much of education theory and teaching philosophy swinging on a pendulum through the decades. First we teach grammar in isolation, then we teach it in context, now we're slowly moving back to pull-out units on grammar. Each has their merits and their pit falls. I fall somewhere in the middle, wanting to make grammar a meaningful part of writing instruction but not wanting it to have more emphasis than the content of the writing. You must know what you want to say before you can tinker with how you will write it.

And of course, I learn right along with my students. I have learned more about grammar from teaching it than I ever did sitting listening to a teacher drone on about transitive verbs and passive construction. But that doesn't make me a perfect writer. Instead, I hope that others concerned with education read my posts and are either validated by my thinking or challenged by it. So despite my imperfect grammar, it seems you've understood my point, which is my main goal.

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