the balance of teaching writing.

Do you ever feel like you’re being pulled in different teaching directions — conventions and craft and process?  Do you sometimes feel guilty when you’re teaching about craft that you should be teaching conventions?  Or in a conference when you compliment on the great focus of the writing, that you should be correcting the spelling?  Do you ever feel like there’s so much the writers in your classrooms don’t know that you should be teaching x instead?

I remember teaching before knowing and embracing the writing workshop philosophy.  I used <gulp> grammar books and drill and practice worksheets and Daily Oral Language.  I was frustrated by the results.  My students could perfectly punctuate the ten sentences in the grammar book, but they couldn’t transfer it to their writing.  Daily Oral Language never sat well with me because the entire idea is based on a defecit mentality — find the errors, find what’s wrong.

Then I saw the light<smile> and I learned about writing workshop.  I realized how unbalanced my teaching was — conventions were heaviest, then a “canned” version of the writing process.  And maybe I taught a little about craft?  The school year closed and I was left feeling that my students weren’t any better writers than when they entered my door the previous August.  I didn’t give them any direction in how to write well.

The first year that I decided to fully embrace writing workshop, my teaching was still unbalanced.  This year the process was the heaviest focus, followed by craft.  And, I wonder if I taught any conventions that year?   The school year closed and I was left feeling as though I had done nothing but boost self-esteem.  Sure, they were writing longer pieces, but the writing was filled with grammatical errors.  I felt that they weren’t any closer to writing in Standard  English than when they entered the room in August.  (Of course, I countered my guilt by reminding myself they weren’t any worse off than they were the year before when I only used the grammar book.  They didn’t make gains, but they didn’t lose ground either!)

I remember being ready to chuck the whole idea of writing workshop.  This was pre-focus lesson resources and I didn’t have a coach working alongside me.  I was in the middle of the ocean alone, trying to figure it all out.  And I was disappointed by the lack of knowledge about conventions my students possessed.

Plus, if I’m really honest, I felt pressure from other teachers.  I was worried that they would look down on me when my students appeared in their classes.  So starting my third year of teaching, I almost ditched the entire idea of writing workshop.

My saving grace was Nancie Atwell’s book, In the Middle.  I read it near the end of July, a few weeks before returning to school.  After a session of reading, I would wish for my students to experience what her students had.  And I realized the intentional teaching behind the experiences.  I realized the purposeful balance of choosing what to discuss in writing workshop.

In the name of balance, I almost went back to using conventions as my foundation:  If they don’t know how to write a complete sentence . . . yada yada yada. Thankfully my common sense kicked in:  If they don’t have meaning to what they’re writing, if it doesn’t matter in their real lives, then conventions also won’t matter.

This was the beginning of my understanding that to teach writing well, I had to first place the emphasis on writing things that matter.  The next need was helping students figure out a process that worked for them.  I helped students craft their writing — molding it into something that had meaning and strong writing in it too.  Finally, at this point in the game conventions mattered.  It was here, weeks into the school year that conventions became powerful.  Students were hooked on writing.  They felt successful.  They had something that mattered and something important.  I could now say:  You will never be taken seriously if you don’t use standard conventions.  And later I could say, break a convention to really make your point heard (like use a conjunction at the beginning of a sentence).

This week, I’ve had several conversations with teachers who have a few years of workshop teaching under their belts and are feeling the pull to move back to an emphasis on  conventions — to make that the foundation of their writing instruction.  I understand their struggle.  I understand the pressure.  I understand their desire to teach kids to write well.  I understand because I was there.

But, I hope they stand tall and be bold and brave in their teaching.  I hope they hear their hearts whisper: It is more important to give students a voice than to give them conventions.  Someone else can always help with conventions — but the individual is the only one who can craft their thoughts into powerful messages that impact the world.

And that is the best lesson we can give our students — teaching them that their voice is important and impacts the world.