You Write with Students. Right?

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.

  1. That is another problem probably worthy of it’s own post – why keep that secret? []
  2. I desperately hope that you do. If you’re a teacher who isn’t still reading, well, that’s also worthy of its own post. []
  3. Or science, or history, or underwater basket weaving. []
  4. Or, if you prefer, bologna. []

12 thoughts on “You Write with Students. Right?

  1. I agree. End of comment.

    No, seriously. I agree. Maybe because I’ve been exchanges snippets of written thoughts with you long enough to have a bit of your wiring in my thought making process (if that makes any sense to you).

    The way you write it, the way you make it innevitably leads me into fine tuning what I mean by I agree. Perhaps the only way to do that is a written response.

    The question I usually ask is,
    Do your students know how you, the teacher, write? Can they catch you somewhere in the middle of your own learning process, doubting, wondering, as a vulnerable human far from the know-all/authority in the subject ideal?

    And now I will have to reflect on your grammar and the use of the preposition “with” to join ‘me’ with ‘my students’. What does that look like in my own classroom?

    Thank you, Bud.

    1. Claudia,

      I like your question better – our students should catch us regularly “doubting, wondering” as “vulnerable human(s).” I like that idea lots.

      1. Loved the post and love this thread. I recently heard Jonathan Martin say at a keynote speech that what we need is “less actually, more uncertainty”. He explained that some teachers hear a student comment and respond with “actually (insert ‘truth’ here).” He would prefer that teachers help students recognize questions that have no “correct” answers. It seems to me that a great way for teachers to model uncertainty (and writing) for students is by blogging and allowing students to see the “rough drafts” of our thought process. Thanks for a great post, Bud!

  2. My immediate response was “not enough”, but I took the question to mean co-writing with my students, collaborating, modelling.
    As an English teacher, my students are constantly “writing” in various formats. I completely agree with formula on your slide.
    Also, the formula works in reverse. Making things should constitute writing, and those of us who ARE writing teachers need to do
    a better job understanding that truth.
    Thanks.

  3. An English teacher colleague once said to me: “We’re not all writing queens, Glenda,” when expressed ideas similar to those in your post. She didn’t like teaching writing or writing, so she deflected. Oh, she taught the college prep course at the time, which eventually became our dual enrollment writing class.

  4. I agree, but I’m a special ed teacher who’s also a published writer. One thing I do in my Learning/Study Strategies class is write 2-3 paragraphs (“The Daily Blog”) which I then require students to respond to as a class warmup. And when I teach writing strategies, I’ll often write in response as well. I also will share examples of my own edited work, and I’ve been known to bring in my Master’s project paper to show them when we write the research paper.

    But I also show kids the online portion of the classes I’m taking as part of my modeling how to study.

    My opinion is that you can’t teach kids how to write without modeling it yourself.

  5. I’m so lucky to teach little ones because writing with them is just a natural step in their development as writers. I also feel really lucky because just today 2 other teachers from 2 other schools asked me to help them incorporate writing into their classrooms more. There is hope, Bud. Keep talking ’cause people are listening!

  6. we’ve already discussed this but twitter isn’t the best medium. I think it is more important to give work purpose than to choose to write at the same time my students do. I always felt like the natural narcissism of middle school was such that they didn’t really need me to sit and write at the same time. If anything they needed conferencing and individualized feedback. In any case… I ended up finding other ways to get full on commitment from students. And I guess it must have been worth something since it works in my classroom. I choose writing for a purpose as the core of my program. I give students reasons to commit to their own work. Project based writing whether its a magazine, a blog, a hand bound book about themselves, a speech or a play leads to almost universal buy in. The key is to give them intrinsic reasons to show up. They don’t write because they see me writing but because they care about the product. And I give lots and lots of honest real editorial style feedback. They know I’ll tell them what I really think and that in the end the choices are theirs. That’s how I do it. Its not the only way. I say whatever works.

    That being said, I am always at the beginning and looking to improve my game. I’m going to reinvestigate writing with them anyway…. Maybe I might find that it has its own special value in the class. Out of curiosity, do you write real things when you write with them… Blog posts, articles for publication, a chapter of a novel, a latter to the editor, etc? Do you write things that you share or things that you might not? I think if I’m going to do it, I want it to be real writing which is not always something to share.

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