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.


A Love Letter to the Teachers in My Life

Dear Teachers,

November is a tough month. In high schools and elementary schools, report cards have just passed, and both teachers and students are exhausted. I’ve never really had the chance to observe teachers going through this period because I’m usually right with them: head down, marking, reading, commenting, and eating a big bowl of m&ms.

At the moment, being a literacy coach affords me some distance from this, so I’ve noticed the strain on my colleagues. I walked into a staff room the day before report cards were due, and I saw teachers with stacks of paper in front of them looking a little bleary-eyed from writing their reports. I talked with a teacher who is concerned about students who are missing evidence to meet expectations; he was agonizing over how to fill in those gaps and report on them.

A young teacher, who was getting was getting married the Saturday before report cards were due, conferenced with every single one of her students while I tried to help. She worked tirelessly to pull last minute pieces of evidence from students who are facing immense challenges.  Then she spent her whole prep talking to me about how to help students she is concerned about instead of doing the pile of marking she is carrying around. She isn’t sleeping.

Some people might hear complaints about the marking and reporting, and that does happen – teachers are human after all- but what I see is teachers pouring everything into their students. Report cards cause anxiety because we aren’t finished with our students. We need more time! Just one more week! I know they’ll hand it in tomorrow! Teachers have to decide how to communicate ten short weeks of learning through a number and 400 characters.

So this is why this post is my love letter to teachers. The following is what I have the privilege to experience every day.

I see the new teacher teaching a marginalized group of students at his school. His room is a place where students feel comfortable, and they trust him. They have been ridiculed and rejected in other areas of their lives, but they know that they have a safe space.

I see the elementary teachers who full-on participate in daily physical activities with their students. I didn’t even think to join, but my elementary colleagues got right into the games to the point where they were physically sweating by the end. Their students loved it.

I see the teacher who wants his students to value learning and is running up against twelve years of conditioning where students have been taught that their value is attached to their grades. He wants them to value their growth and potential.

I see the librarian who is waiting for her library to open so that she can resume doing what she loves: connecting with students in a space that shouts its joy of learning.

I see the elementary teachers who sat with me in a meeting on Tuesday and shared how they teach students with a range of needs in one room.  One teacher gave me such simple advice about talking to students. So simple that it probably seemed ridiculous to her that I hadn’t thought of it already. I tried it, and it worked. She made me a better teacher by spending time with me.

I see the ESL teachers and consultants who have been sharing their knowledge with me. They look at student work with me, share resources, and help me shape my next steps. They are giving me the training I need when I don’t have anywhere else to get it.

I see the resource teachers who will not give up. They push for change, they see kids who have slipped through the cracks in the system, and they help teachers meet student needs. When the challenge is daunting, they shout for help, and they keep shouting until someone finally listens.

I see the teachers who are going through the pain of their schools closing. Years of teaching in one building will soon be over, but they are thinking about their students and how to make the transition easier for them, even as they deal with the uncertainty over their futures.

I see the teachers who ask questions and push our thinking so that we move beyond doing what has always been done. They challenge our methods, our texts, and our ideas. It must be exhausting to continue to have to push for needed change, but they do it because they know that it is good for their students.

I see the teachers who spend a fortune buying books for their classrooms, clothing for their students, and, in some cases, food for their students. Their acts of kindness are done without wanting anything in return. They do it because they believe that every student has value. That every one student deserves hope.

So during this dark November if you’re feeling discouraged and exhausted, please know that what you do every day is so vitally important.  I know there are days when you feel discouraged, undervalued, and overwhelmed, but I see what you do every day and it’s beautiful. This is my love letter to teachers.