So, what does it take to be a great writing teacher? Students’ point of view.
For the past many years, writing workshop in our middle school ended in sixth grade. They would, of course, continue to write in seventh grade, but that every other day of writing workshop ritual – the writer’s notebook, the sketching and exploring of their writers’ identities through different genres of writing – would now be part of a more all-encompassing English 7. My students would often return to my classroom and speak of missing “the old writing workshop” – a period set aside just for writing.
All of that changed last year, when schedules were adjusted so that 7th. graders would finally have writing workshop for one semester of the school year. Soon, my ex-students began visiting to let me know how much they were continuing to enjoy “the old writing workshop”. All year long, they’d return to share what they were doing, and I loved seeing evidence of their growth as writers displayed on bulletin boards here and there in the 7th. grade hallways. Every student had the same writing teacher, my colleague Rosemarie ; and, as we spoke, I came to realize that there were some things just about every student made note of when they mentioned Ms. H. , some traits all writing teachers, really, should aspire to.
“She’s all about show not tell”:
Rosemarie lives a writer’s life – she brings her notebook to her workshops and she shares her own journey as a writer. That’s a powerful thing. My students, who believed that my own notebook was an aberration, were delighted to discover that Ms. H. kept one, too, that it was “real” (not a teaching prop), “way cool”, and that she shared bits and pieces of its contents to show not tell. We serve as writing mentors for our kids, especially for those kids who need to be encouraged and inspired into a vision of themselves as writers. An anchor chart made for a mini lesson, or a Powerpoint slide show of writing how-to’s can never take the place of an authentic, often created on the spot, piece of writing or sketching to make visible the thinking process all writers have to find a way through. Here, for instance, is the way she sketched the idea that (like a heart map, or a place map) your trusty old backpack can also hold writing ideas:
As all writers do, and all writing teachers advise our students to do, Rosemarie returns to entries in order to revise, add on, and make deletions. Sharing this, too, is part of her show not tell:
When students see the way writers practice their craft through thoughtful revision, they can better envision how they themselves can go about this process, they can see that writers continually revisit their work and fine tune words, phrases, and descriptions.
“She helps me write better, but she doesn’t just do it for me”:
When my own children were in school, the bane of our existence was the returned English assignment with the following directives – always marked in red, always followed by exclamations in duplicate: “Rewrite this part!!” “Thesis statement unclear!!” “Sense?!!” There was never any direction provided, any clear idea as to how to go about revision. Of course, this was better than the alternative, where the teacher would simply put a line through the offending passages, rewrite another version, and ask for these to be incorporated. In either case, there was no actual writing instruction provided.
Rosemarie, through her conferences and her Google docs comments, finds a way to name specific strategies and nudge her kids towards revision with voice, so that Ben or Zach’s revision still sounds like them – their personalities come through intact. Kids appreciate this, more importantly, they come to realize that they have a distinctive writing voice worth cultivating and improving.
“She’s kind – she gets us kids”:
When we ask our kids to write about what matters most to them, the essence of writing workshop, we have to be kind. It helps that Rosemarie has five kids of her own, so “getting” kids is probably a matter of survival for her. But I think that my ex-students feel this way because she is kind, and that kindness fosters a spirit of trust and community in her writing workshop which allows them to explore ideas, share their feelings, and write about these with honesty. When kids can write in such an atmosphere they feel valued and empowered. They want to write.
“She always shares interesting mentor texts – they get us thinking”:
Rosemarie reads widely, and she has a knack for culling together interesting and varied mentor texts across a large spectrum of topics and interests. My ex-students were always talking about this or that article or story they had read in her class, and how it had piqued their interest which led to further reading, and then to crafting a piece of their own writing in response. Very often, we tend to stick with mentor texts we know and love, and trot them out year after year. But, it takes a very special writing teacher to make it a point to widen the selection, and to incorporate new voices, new and in-the-news topics that are guaranteed to capture our students’ interests.
And, to those student voices I’d like to add traits I value as a colleague:
“She is generous and willing to collaborate”:
It is simply not possible to read all the stuff that’s out there (books, blogs, Tweets, articles, etc.) to guide us into better teaching practices. Rosemarie shares what she’s learned, and is willing to part with the resources that she’s gathered. She makes it possible to collaborate on projects, and makes those collaborations a joyful experience – one in which there is a spirit of “we are here for the kids, let’s work together to make their learning experiences a rich one”. We trade book titles, teaching resources, and ways in which we can help this or that student become a better writer. We value each other’s insights, and are grateful for them. Teaching is not easy, teaching writing is especially not easy.
So, here’s to my colleague Rosemarie, in the words of my students: “an awesome writing teacher”. So glad to work by her side!