So… this is hard work… but anything worth doing, is worth working hard for. I know that for sure. I am here, working harder than I have ever worked in the past 10 years as a teacher, and I don’t get paid for it… not in cash at least. What I get is much, much more.
“If you’re going to teach him how to write, first you have to love him. If you can convince him of that, there’s nothing you can’t teach him.” -AVI
It seems each week that I’m here, I not only learn more, but I end the week with more and more questions. Do all teachers love their students? Do all teachers love teaching? Questions that kind of make my blood boil now. I know the answer. And kids, well, they can smell fake and phony a mile away. I can too, or at least I’d like to think I’m pretty good at it. Without genuinely caring for students, there will be little life-long learning accomplished in the classroom. If you don’t care about me, respect me, treat me with dignity… I could care less about what you’re trying to teach me. I can easily claim these words, and I do. Young people probably feel that way too. I am still trying to figure out if it’s even possible for a teacher to accomplish using the workshop model, without truly caring for and loving students. Is it possible?
This week, I learned about the importance of conferring, and why workshop is the best test prep model one could have for students. We studied, in practice, the writing process… and learned that writing is a difficult and highly complicated process. It is not, absolutely not, a step by step brainstorm, plan, draft, correct, revise, and final draft process. It is a dirty, messy, bloody process. And it should be. It’s crucial to the writer that it is a bloody process. And most important… I bumped into another elephant in the room. How many elephants can one fit in a single room? I learned that teachers of writing… must be writers too. It makes total sense.
Approximations – Accept them. “Know what the child knows and can do, and what he or she might benefit from learning next.” Invented spelling, sentence structures, especially for second language learners… “I need to assume that every move that they make is a writerly move.” “We have to dream the dream a little for them, until they are able to dream it.” It was described to me like running along beside a child, while they’re trying to learn to ride a bike… and you’re there cheering, telling them what they’re doing right, how to do it better, and cheering some more when they are starting to do it, and getting better and better at it. You shout with joy “keep peddling!”
We need to remember to respond to our student’s writing like a human being. When our students write, they are responding as a human being, one human being communicating to another… communicating to me, in the classroom. When we read student writing… we are “one human being who has been trusted with the heart and soul of another human being.” Pushing their thinking to move them to the next thing… to show them how to “really make this piece shine.” We are teaching them how to communicate better. To take what kids already know, and then build from there. This is a curriculum tailored to the individual student. Where we don’t treat kids like numbers, reading levels, test scores, but use a more humanizing approach, instead of a dehumanizing one.
Learning happens when students are “actively engaged with reading and writing.” Teaching students how to be actively engaged on their own is a powerful tool for life, one that doesn’t end at the end of the week, or the end of the school year. We are teaching kids to do this on their own, and do it well. “For anything, there’s a lesson, and the more common sense and less formulaic you can make it, the better.”
Conferring is also an art. It is like a dance, a string of high level, sometimes invisible moves, movements of higher level complex strategies that take the student from where they are to higher places. To confer is to invite a student into conversation, like old friend, then strategically expect, no insisting, on moving them forward with laser beam precision to help them become stronger writers. This is individualized instruction… the best kind of instruction. Writer’s workshop is always an invitation to write, NOT a mandate. Conferring with a student within a writer’s workshop is using strategic precision that helps move the student forward, guiding them intentionally to become stronger writers… “Let me show you how to really make that shine.” These are deliberate precise moves that teach the writer… they are “ninja moves” and frankly… to do this with a student makes me feel sort of like a superhero. “You are teaching really complicated invisible practices.” (Kelt)
Be a “kid watcher” and develop formative assessment data for learning. Look beyond the text to the context of children’s development, consider where they are, how far they have come, and where they are going next. These again are skilled “ninja moves” that move fluidly in and out of view, but most of the time invisible. Those invisible moves are tailored to each student. We grow writers this way.
I’ll just come right out and say it… teaching kids writing to pass a test is wrong. We must “teach the writer, not the writing.” This really isn’t hard for anyone to see. Again, not rocket science. The only reason the state gives writing tests with prompts is because it is the best they can do to try to measure student progress for writing. They did not set up testing, so we could memorize a testing “formula” and have students practice a format to reach a master level outcome. They are simply trying to make sure students are learning to write. Here’s a great example that was used in an article called: Real-World Writing: Making Purpose and Audience Matter, where I learned that real writing, real learning of writing, should have purpose and an authentic audience:
“Mindless “test prep” by English teachers is thus an ironic error. If we really understood testing—its Purpose and Audience—we would not make this mistake and kill off good writing in the process. An outstanding writing program will be reflected in test scores in the same way that we do well on the physical exam if we live fit, nutritious, healthy lives day in and day out. Mere safe use of formulae in writing by teachers locally is thus akin to practicing all year for the doctor’s annual physical exam instead of working all year to be healthy.” (Wiggins)
Do you practice for a doctor’s exam or do you live a healthy life every day? Well, it makes sense that you would choose to live a healthier life, right? It’s the same with writing. If we begin our “littles” with using the strategies they need to live a healthy writer’s life, by the time they are faced with testing, they’ve got it covered, they’re good to go. The evidence is in the results… if you look over the highest scored compositions, you will find they are just so much fun to read. They do not follow formula, but instead scream “fresh and fearless.”
“The best writing—regardless of content—is always “fresh and fearless.” But such writing is only possible when we teach from the start that the Purpose is to touch real Audiences and create some alteration of the world…” (Wiggins) There’s no formula for teaching “fresh and fearless.” We all need to remember that.
The Writing Process
“There’s no birth without shit and blood.” The real writing process is again not formulaic in form. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that the world’s greatest artists, writers, composers, poets… do NOT follow a nice and tidy format or framework for the birth of great works of art. Art is a piece of the creator’s soul. “You can’t put it in a jar and sell it at Target.” The real writing process begins with writing. Just write. Every day. This is living the life of a writer. I’ve practiced living this life for the past two weeks, every day. After hours of reading research, I begin to write… and sometimes I’d wake up at 4:30am, last night 1:30am, because something in my memory was left unfinished, it wakes me, and I begin to write again. Taking time to write is the first crucial piece of the writing process.
The next phase of the process is noticing… notice your writing… Where is it leading you? Do you notice patterns? If you do, you pull from those patterns and write more, and watch where the writing leads you. And as you write, ideas begin to merge… you begin to make decisions about what you might want to write. You pick a possible topic and write about it… and write more. One of my favorite strategies was placing my topic in a museum. What an amazing way to develop a topic. Now chunk it! Pull out of it all the important chunks… those pieces you’re sure you want in your final piece. Place those chunks in the order you think you may want the final draft to unfold. You decide. Then, look at it all over again, everything. Check out all you’ve done, look over your museum, your ideas, your pages and pages of writing, your chunks… then turn away from it all. Put it all away, so you don’t see it… and write! Write fast! Write hard! Write messy… bloody write! This is the birth of a draft… a real draft, an artist’s draft. Yes, it will have lots and lots of errors, you may even forget stuff you wanted to include, so you leave spaces for it or “XXX” out spaces in its place. It will be ugly, it should be ugly. It is the birth of great work. It is terrifying to do this the first time, and then… it is completely liberating. The rest of the process is what we know well… the correcting, adding, fixing, and everything else you need to clean it up to have a finished product.
Why Teachers Must Write
“The only bad writing is the day you haven’t written.” Teachers of writing should be writers, because “Teaching writing without doing it ourselves is like trying to teach a four-year-old how to tie shoes when we have only worn flip-flops our entire life.” (K.Bomer) This was the moment that I realized why so many teachers I’ve met find writing difficult or uncomfortable to teach. It is because they themselves don’t take time to write. As a writer, you learn to become a better teacher of writing. “This is curricular gold.” By writing, by living as a writer, and learning what it takes to deliver this form of communication, you discover your own habits, ideas, and challenges. In order to teach this craft, you have to be able to experience this craft. “We’re making an argument for how to teach kids here.”
“Experience is the best teacher.” We must read and write every day, because if you don’t position yourself as a reader and a writer, it will be hard to teach it to your students. So, each day this week, the reading and writing filled my days, between 5-7 hours a day, outside of class. I am living a reader and writer’s life, fully immersed. It is both the most intense and beautiful experience. This complete immersion reminds me to stop and think about what I ask my students to do. Would I be comfortable doing what I ask my students to do? Is what I offer productive to life-long learning? Would this help me for the rest of my life, or is it a waste of my learning time? Are we asking kids to do what we are not willing to do ourselves? What a wonderful position to learn from, to be in the trenches, right there with your students… to be able to say, “you know… when that happens to me, what I do is…” This is truly curricular gold.
Fighting the Past
This reflection of my second week into the Heart of Texas Writing Project only mentions a tiny fragment of what I learned this past week. If I had to say it all, I’d would probably need to write several books. What I did share leaves me trying to fight off all the memories of mistakes made in the classroom with my students, correcting small spelling or grammar errors, instead of focusing on the “hidden gems” in their writing, allowing schedules and other activities to cut short or completely remove daily writing in my classroom… What was I thinking? How could I have allowed any of it to happen? I often stop and check my own practices. It is after all, what brought me here.
I learned and lived writing through the workshop model this week, again. “So, today and every day, when you write…” you practice becoming a better writer, a better teacher of writing. Again, the learning… it feels like it’s coming at me from all directions, from the hours and hours of daily reading… through the struggle to write my own piece, and then the collecting… the continuous collection of research is ground moving. This is the research for my own toolbox, so that I can pull it out when I need it. Again, I ask myself, why this and not the other? Because “I am not the employee, I am the boss.” Because it isn’t enough to hold one of the hardest jobs in the world, we must make tough decisions about our day to day work time. I struggle with the decisions made for my students, and whether they are what is best for them. Teaching is hard work from every angle.
I am firm in my convictions, but it is at times difficult to hold on to them… it feels like a fist fight sometimes. I am determined to become better than I was yesterday, because I want to change lives. Everything we do, if we live well, deserves purpose. There is purpose here, purpose to studying and practicing this deep intellectual work. We change lives.
Marina Rodriguez is a California native, National Writing Project, Heart of Texas Writing Project, Teacher Consultant, living and teaching in Texas.