GUEST BLOG POST: How Can I Be A Teacher of Writers?

Deb Day has been teaching English and reading classes in northeast Iowa since 1989. In her current position she teaches speech, creative writing , ninth grade English, and coaches contest speech. She is married, the mother of two, grandmother of six, and is owned by Chloe, a one and a half year old Golden Doodle. All of this provides plenty of material for her blog about teaching and her life called Coffee With Chloe.

When Stacey emailed and asked me to do a guest post, I was flabbergasted!  Did she even have the right person?  I haven’t written a book or presented at a conference.  I wrote a little blog about my life and teaching.

I almost said no.

But Ruth and Stacey write about being a teacher of writers instead of a writing teacher. In my blogging journey, my view of writing changed and so has my view of teaching it.  If you are going to guide writers, then you have to write yourself.

So I said yes.

I’ve taught creative writing for a couple of years now. The first semester I taught it, I made assignments, gave due dates, graded papers and moved on. We did a lot of sharing that year, which was good, but we seldom revisited anything once it was graded.

It wasn’t what I wanted my writing class to be. The reflections of the class revealed that many of my students wanted to be able to choose what they wrote. More freedom.  So the next semester, that’s what I did. Students needed to have eight published pieces by the end of the semester and compile them in a portfolio. But what they wrote, when they turned them in was up to them (there were date guidelines, but nothing specific). How naïve I was. The day of the semester final, I had students sitting in my classroom frantically writing. Not what I envisioned. Specific due dates were definitely needed! So were numbers of specific genres.

Creative writing continues to evolve. By the time this posts, I will have been in school for two and half weeks and I’ve been working and revising my writing classroom.  There are things I would like to do, but can’t (cozy furniture or antique writing desks would be great to create the atmosphere!), but there are plenty of things I can do to help my writers in their journey.

I’ve created a writing corner in my room. I filled the drawers with fun paper to draft on. There are lots and lots of pens and markers to doodle with.  There are staplers and paper clips, tape and glue. A rotating book rack holds grammar books, various kinds of dictionaries, and books about writing. A file box with directions and ideas for writing is also on the counter. There are also example pieces of writing from last semester’s class hanging around the room. I am lucky that I have a computer lab in my room that no one but me really uses.

The first writing I always have students do (and one of two they don’t get a choice about) is a writing autobiography.  I’ve adapted this from many places and don’t even remember where I first learned of the idea. I give the students a sheet with directions and a few guiding questions and turn them loose. It usually takes them about a period and a half to complete the assignment. I don’t grade it, but I do give them points for completion. I’ve used it with seventh graders and I’ve used it with seniors. It doesn’t matter grade level. I like it because it gives me great insight into the minds of my new writers. It also gives me ideas for the first mini-lessons of the year.

Two areas I want to concentrate on this school year are writer’s notebooks and sharing. I don’t believe I did any justice to either this last year and I need to correct that!

Writer’s Notebooks: I have always said I used writer’s notebooks, but really, they were just journals.  It wasn’t until I began my own notebook in earnest that I realized what I called a writer’s notebook was just a journal.  I began the transformation last semester but this year, we will work on/in them in earnest.

I began this semester by showing them my writer’s notebook and what I have been including in it over the summer. Once we have looked at mine, we made a list of what they found and other things that could be included in the notebook. I typed it up and everyone taped it into his or her notebook. We’ve been doing little activities in the notebook that will help them with ideas for writing.  Most of these activities I took from Barry Lane’s book But How Do You Teach Writing? A Simple Guide for All Teachers. I also fill them in on new things I include as I write them down. It’s good for them to see that I keep adding things even though my current notebook is almost full.

This year, more of my mini-lessons will involve teaching a genre and then trying it in their writer’s notebook. I have required different genres of writing in the past, but I relied on a written set of directions to guide students. I really neglected teaching the genres last year and consequently was disappointed in some of the writing I received.

Sharing:  While students sometimes share amongst themselves, I haven’t included as much whole class sharing as I would like. This year I want to share more and in several different ways. A favorite with past students has been the “silent share.” I’ve noticed students seem to have trouble sharing their writing aloud. So in silent share, I have students lay out their writing around the room, with or without their name. The class then goes around the room with post-it notes and reads at least three pieces. They write their comments on the notes and stick them to the piece when they are done reading.  Gradually, as students become more comfortable with each other, I will work toward more public sharing of drafts and snippets of long pieces.

I also need to do more sharing of my own work.  Students need to see the struggle of writing (the drafts of this posts will make great mini-lessons). They need to see the process I go through as I write. They need to see my revision process, my editing, my successes and failures. They need to see a writer.

But the utensils, the modeling, and the sharing won’t make them better writers.  Writing will.