I find myself asking, more and more, in the work I do with teachers and students in my neck of the woods and around the country, a simple question:
When and where are you writing with your students?
I say this is a simple question, because, well, it is. You should have an answer to this question, and I hope that the answer is something like “Often. And Everywhere.”
But too often, the answer is more like “I really should, but we’re just so busy.” Or, worse, the answer devolves into an explanation of how the answerer isn’t a writing teacher, but teaches math, or science, or something else.
That’s just not good.
Writing is the gateway to understanding. In fact, it’s in the composition of ideas or responses or summary that we really begin to own the learning that we’re doing.
I try to anticipate the “but I’m not a writer” answer, too. I have a slide that’s found its way into many of the talks and workshops that I give. It looks like this:
I hope that folks understand that I am less interested in that they are spending time with words than they are with the tools of composition and making things. School is too often too passive – a study of only what other people have made, rather than a study of making things of one’s own.
So, when I ask teachers about when and how often they’re writing with students, I’m trying to presume that such making is occurring in our classrooms. But it’s not. Or, at least, people are keeping their making secret1.
I thought it would make sense to attack a few of the answers that I hear for why writing isn’t happening on a regular basis. Others’ statements are in bold. My responses to them are not.
I’m not a writing teacher.
One doesn’t need to instruct students on writing in order to get writing to learn to happen in one’s classroom. While it’s never a bad idea to read or otherwise engage at least some of the writing that you ask students to do, it’s not necessary that the focus of taking time to write should be on assessing the writing, or correcting student errors. There’s a time and place for that. But it’s certainly okay to ask students to use writing as a tool for understanding, for memory, or for exploration.
Don’t grade it. But make time for writing.
I’m not a highly-qualified writing teacher.
This is a variation of the previous – but is worthy of its own response. “Highly-qualified” is baggage language brought into the classroom from educational policy. Since the federal government has cheapened the value of the phrase, I’d say we should strongly reconsider it ourselves.
Of course you’re a highly-qualified writing teacher. You’ve used writing to successfully complete your instructional goals in the past. You write email to parents and to colleagues and administrators. Somewhere, you probably picked up how to create a resume, or construct a letter of interest that got you your current teaching job. You read. Lots.2 You are highly-qualified to be a thoughtful reader and writer of your students’ work.
You’re also highly-qualified to be a cheerleader, a coach, and an enthusiastic challenger of what your students produce and share. But you can’t be any of those things if you’re not making anything or asking them to.
I teach math3, so my emphasis isn’t on writing.
Baloney4. Your emphasis, be you a teacher of equations, or of the scientific method, or of how to ensure the proper fuel/air mixture in a V-6 engine, is on helping your students to explore and discover the world. Writing, as a tool for exploration, or declaration, or narrative, or whatever you do with words and ideas, is a part of your work. Show me a mathematician who doesn’t write. Point me towards a scientist who isn’t taking good notes or publishing and sharing her work. Name an engineer that you know that doesn’t sketch or draft or fiddle with a pencil from time to time?
You can’t. So your students can’t not write, either.
There’s no time for writing. We’ve got so much stuff to cover.
You aren’t in the coverage business. You’re in the student learning business. And if you want them to learn the thing that you’re teaching, then they’d better be doing that thing, and thinking about that thing, and modeling their understanding of that thing in some constructive and/or reflective way. Period. There’s no time to not write. Learning’s too important to leave up to osmosis.
Those’re a few of the more common excuses I hear for why teachers aren’t taking time to write with their students. What have I missed? Let me know in the comments.
And – make time for writing. Soon. It’s important.