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Post for August 1st

Informed Change in the Classroom to Develop Student Writers: Reflections of a Veteran Teacher in the ISI

“ ‘Writing…should not be yet another way to train students to be obedient citizens’ ” (Brannon, et al 18). The current movement addressing racial injustices serves as a perfect example of the need to help our students find their voices rather than tell them what to say or how to say it. People across our nation are using their voices to address appropriate audiences with a clearly defined purpose in the format they identify to be most useful. A peaceful protest was held in the small community where I teach, a community heavily populated with, as some students would say, “the privileged who don’t believe rules apply to them.” Some of my colleagues and I were quite impressed by the efforts we saw our youth making in an attempt to confront those in the “privileged” community who would usually try to stifle and dismiss opposing voices. I’d like to say I impacted our youth’s willingness to speak out in a civil and informative manner, but I am unsure my approach to writing instruction played a part in how they expressed themselves. 

I am guilty of teaching the five-paragraph essay formula for the majority of my career. It was not until recently that I realized that students’ writing was being suppressed when asked to fit their ideas into the formula. I spent far too much time telling them what to think rather than teaching them how to think. I have started to “go beyond the formula” and help students process their thinking while they read texts that support a summative writing assignment. In addition, I am  providing meaningful writing opportunities throughout each unit of study to help students process their thoughts regarding specific topics or themes. Students have responded quite well to these recent approaches (because they work), but many are still inclined to fit all of their ideas into the five-paragraph essay format since they have been trained to do so most of their writing careers. That just means I have more work to do myself to help them see that writing goes beyond those parameters. 

Steps to Take to Make Change Possible

Through my participation in the San Joaquin Valley Writing Project’s Invitational Summer Institute, I am learning ways to approach writing more effectively, including how to use mentor texts to encourage students to examine a writer’s craft and choices. Like so many educators, I have my students conduct “close reads” of texts where they are expected to think on the page and track that thinking as they progress through the text. Unfortunately, many students struggle to complete the task. I try to model expectations by conducting close reads as a class, but I am discovering that I am not providing enough purpose in the reading. My students receive an essential question for each unit and understand each reading is meant to support that question, but the key element that I must introduce is how the authors of each text are using their words to relay information in support of the question. This is crucial in helping students develop an understanding of words, their impact on the audience and their importance in demonstrating who they are as writers. 

Introduce and Analyze Examples of Good Writing

In Penny Kittle’s “Teaching the Writer’s Craft” featured in the text Educational Leadership, she references a “Book Graffitti Board” she maintains in her classroom. From students’ independent reading selections, they are asked to identify a “powerful passage of writing” to add to the board which promotes the beauty in words/sentences and offers students the opportunity to mimic styles while developing their own. Such a simple request is so intentional as it requires students to pay attention to what they are reading, not just for content but for approach, style and purpose. This is the first step I will take in my new approach to writing. If students are able to select an example of a strong piece of writing from a text of their choosing or that is teacher-provided, then they can start to adopt a similar style to use in their own writing. The excerpts we document and discuss will serve as examples of good writing to  emphasize the importance of voice and how to use it. To develop as writers, my students need models to influence their own writing. To engage student interest in developing as writers, I will need to offer choice, in topic and genre. 

Provide Student Choice

If students are presented with options, they are more inclined to choose topics they connect with and are willing to explore in more depth. Kittle addresses how essential it is to provide students with choice in terms of writing topics. She defines the need for students to write about what interests them, to argue for changes they believe are necessary rather than always assign topics on which I want them to demonstrate understanding. In that peaceful community protest, it is evident student protestors were interested in the cause and were arguing for changes in policy inappropriately sustained by previous generations. Their own interest and ability to choose to participate in formats that support change are what drive their voices in this capacity. We can provide these opportunities in our classrooms if approached properly.  

In “Designing Writing Structure that Matters” from Voices From the Middle, co-authors Hannah Dostal and Rachael Gabriel provide an example of a lesson where a teacher planned a lesson on persuasive writing and modified it after overhearing students’ responses to a fast food advertisement. The teacher originally planned to assign students a writing assignment that asked them to respond to a “stock issue” like school uniforms or lunches to a blanket audience. Instead, she modified the assignment to allow the students to write to a real person–the manager of the fast food restaurant featured in the advertisement–and for a real cause. This is the type of work that supports students in developing their voices as the purpose of the writing is motivated by their own interests. James Moffett supports the importance choice plays in developing student writers while also emphasizing the significance personal connections have when exploring a topic. 

Make Personal Connections to Drive the Writing Process

In his discussion “Bridges: From Personal Writing to the Formal Essay”, Moffett clearly demonstrates how to take students from personal-experience to essay writing when he explains what he does with his students, all of whom are teachers. Asking his students to write about a personal incident, “something interesting” he says, begins the thinking/writing process. Then he asks them to identify the metaphor within the incident, the first step in “parlaying” from personal-experience to essay. Moffett is simply presenting his students with the opportunity to write about something they know, something on which they can be informed writers, with a genre that lends to successful and/or uninhibited writing. Starting there makes the next step toward essay writing seem less intimidating as there is a foundation on which to build one’s initial ideas and understanding of the topic. Making connections between personal experiences and those similar to others’ (either fictional or nonfictional) then helps the writer develop a thesis statement on which to elaborate in both the research and essay process, some less desirable but informative genres. If our young protestors participated in such a process, they would be even more effective in their quest for change as they would be able to use their personal convictions to become more informed about the history of the problem in order to enact change. 

Written Conventions=Communication

Now, leading up to this point I have avoided the topic of written conventions and their importance in expression because I have failed miserably in my attempts to teach them. I quickly learned I was not alone. In my orientation meeting for the San Joaquin Valley Writing Projects’ Invitational Summer Institute, many colleagues shared frustrations with students who are consumed by the conventions of writing rather than the actual content. They found students worry more about spelling words correctly or adding appropriate punctuation where needed. That is not necessarily a bad concern by students, but it distracts them from the true purpose of writing: expression. As I continue my studies in the Summer Institute, it is becoming more apparent that we probably placed emphasis on spelling, punctuation, capitalization, etc. Instead, students need to understand the value their words hold in order to communicate their ideas or opinions, and teachers need to provide examples through mentor texts to help them see that. Dostal and Gabriel illustrate “students need conventions of writing to be explained as tools of communication not correctness” (14). It is important to note that sentence structure and punctuation can impact how an idea is expressed, but it is hard for novice writers to worry about that before they have even generated the ideas. According to K.H. Campbell in “Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay”, we must expect students to participate in low-stakes, ungraded writing opportunities which encourage students to develop initial responses to topics, assigned or selected, which can be revised through the writing process. This strips away the students’ need to be grammatically correct yet helps them develop purpose and voice in later drafts. 

The students who participated in the community protest surely were not concerned with conventions on the signs they held in protest. It was more about what the signs said driven by a genuine interest, a personal encounter, an investment in the topic they were protesting, and what they wanted their audience to know about it and how it feels to experience discrimination. As a teacher, I can take a note from these budding protestors who were more concerned with content and the purpose of their message. Breaking free from the constraints of writing formulas will encourage students to become more expressive writers, and with the proper support, their interest in how to say it and to whom to say it will surface when they want to communicate their positions most effectively. Our small group of protestors already demonstrated what they can do. It’s now up to me to encourage a larger group to find their voices. I need to make change to ensure they can make change. We’ll start by writing. 

  • Kittle, P. (2014). Teaching the writer’s craft. Educational Leadership, 71(7), 35-39.
  • Dostal, H., & Gabriel, R. (2015). Designing writing instruction that matters.  Voices from the Middle, 23(2), 14-19.  
  • Moffett, James (1989). Bridges: From Personal Writing to the Formal Essay. Center for the Study of Writing Seminar Series, transcript. 

Campbell, K. H. (2014). Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay. Educational Leadership, 71(7), 60-64.

Written By Michele Schiller

Michele Schiller is an English teacher and CTE instructor for Kingsburg High School. She is entering her 22nd year of teaching and recently completed the Invitation Summer Institute for SJVWP.

Post For July 15

Writing With Students

I like to tell my students that writing is a messy process. They don’t believe me at first . . .but I tell them this to get past that dreaded “writer’s block”. Too often I find students, pencil in hand with a blank paper in front of them, at their desks frozen in fear.  That’s when I begin to think if we, as a writing community, have done this to them.

After my first year of teaching, I began to demystify the process by sharing my own experiences as a writer. I once rewrote an entire essay from top to bottom. I didn’t make only minor changes. I basically gave my original draft a facelift. It was my attempt to let them know that I, too, struggle with writing. It isn’t a perfect process. Yet, this was not the only method I used to break down the walls of writer’s block in the classroom.

I was able to make this experience more tangible by writing beside them. When I attended my first CATE conference, I saw Kelly Gallagher give a presentation on modeling writing. It is a powerful strategy that creates a writing community in the classroom with the teacher as the mentor. 

One of the science teachers at my school likes to tell his students that when his father taught him how to fix a car, he first watched his father. Then the next time his father handed him a wrench. 

In the same way, modeling this messy process is my way of saying, “watch me first”. Then I hand them the tool and let them try.

Written by Elaine Guzman

Elaine teaches ninth and twelfth grade English at Hoover High School. She has been a Teacher Leader with SJVWP for 5 years.

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