What does it take to teach writing?

I’ve heard that English teachers can reduce the time they spend marking papers, but I haven’t figured out how to do that.  Even the essential shift from evaluating to providing feedback hasn’t reduced the amount of time I spend looking at student work. If anything I found that the time increased because students started valuing the comments on their papers, so they ask for feedback more frequently. More feedback= more time. Yes, writing conferences work, and I love them; however,  if I can’t get to everyone in 75 minutes, I write my comments down instead. So there are multiple points in the year where I would feel like this:

Through John  Warner’s book Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other NecessitiesI learned about the CCCC (Conference on College Composition and Communication) Executive Committee’s position statement about the Principles for Post-Secondary Teaching of WritingWarner highlights Principle 11 which includes this description of the workloads of writing teachers: “No more than 20 students should be permitted in any writing class. Ideally, classes should be limited to 15. Remedial or developmental sections should be limited to a maximum of 15 students. No English faculty members should teach more than 60 writing students a term.”  I spit out my tea when I read this.

I know this is a position on college instruction, and I know that it’s not going to happen, but that didn’t stop me from daydreaming about what I could do to support my students’ writing if I only had 60 of them per semester. I could give multiple rounds of feedback. I could conference weekly with students about their writing (and maybe their reading!). I could read everything they write and respond with thoughtful, practical feedback consistently in both print and conversation. I could study books about writing instruction and use what I learn to move my students’ writing forward. I could treat “every piece of writing [as] a custom job” (Warner 29).

He makes the point that “[t]eaching writing is a lot like coaching. There are many things you can communicate to the entire team at once, but at some point, you need to work one-on-one on the specific difficulties each player is having”(116).  After all, when I look at student work, the goal is first and foremost to help the writer not that one specific piece of writing, so being a copy editor is pointless for me and harmful to the writer.  My time is better spent thinking about what can I say to this student that will help them grow as a writer. Then I need to plan the mini-lesson that may accompany that conversation.

This whole question about what it takes to be an effective writing instructor came about as I helped a deeply reflective colleague, Seema Narula, mark culminating essays and projects. In fact, this post was supposed to be about the experience I had while evaluating so closely with  Seema, but I was distracted by watching the volume of her work and the amount of time she spent moving her students forward, including a couple of individual writing conferences that went after school for over an hour. The students who took advantage of that personalized conference time showed great development as writers and thinkers, but there is no way that a teacher could spend that kind of time with every student on one piece of writing.

What struck me about Seema’s process was that the entire time, she kept thinking about her practice. Even though she had only a few days to turn around all these papers, even though students would soon submit their exams, and even though she was preparing for reading conferences, she turned the whole thing into a learning experience. We spent a couple of preps together where we marked a maximum of two papers each in 75 minutes. Two. This is because the task wasn’t about just grading papers. We talked about the student growth over the semester, possible changes to our teaching, and even how to word our comments. And this is important too. Teachers need time to think and grow as writing instructors. If we become machine-like and systematic in our evaluations, it de-centers the learner.

My reflection about this has come about at exam time, but this isn’t a once in a semester thing.  I’ve come to the belief that if we are going to help student writers improve, they need to write more often in as many genres as possible. The writing pieces need not all make it to the final draft, but students do need to write, and they need someone to read what they write so that they can develop their writing voices. We also need to throw out all our lessons about formulaic writing. This is not writing; it’s a test-taking strategy which can be taught on its own, but it does not deserve the amount of time we spend on it because it doesn’t create better writers. It creates compliance.

I don’t have all the answers about how to do this with more than sixty students or even with sixty.  I’m still learning from the amazing teachers I’ve met who are able to put this into practice, but the work of an effective writing teacher is necessary and worthwhile. Managing writing workshops and student writers will come up in future posts, but first I had to write about the sheer commitment it takes to dedicate yourself to your student writers. Thanks, Seema.

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