What Pre-Service Teachers Really Need to Know About Teaching Writing

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One of my colleagues invited me to teach his Theory & Practice of Teaching Writing course last week. This is a required methods course for pre-service teachers.

I wasn’t sure what the class had been doing or what would be most beneficial to them, so I started things off by asking them to write down their burning question about teaching writing. This is what they asked me:

  • What is the most effective way to create a creative environment for writing in your classroom?
  • How difficult is it really to get a class of high schoolers to actually try writing?
  • Should we correct their writing or will their confidence be shattered?
  • How do I teach all the components of writing effectively to all my students?
  • How do you find a balance between teaching proper writing and allowing students to find satisfaction in the process?
  • How do I actually teach my students to become good writers?
  • How do you let kids be creative while teaching them what they need to know?
  • What should I look for when the writing isn’t high quality but I can’t see where to improve it?
  • What have you found to be a good way to get students excited about writing rather than dreading it?
  • How do you teach writing effectively?
  • How do you reach all of these students?
  • How do you align the way I think writing should be taught with curriculum standards and standardized testing?

It felt like a “key to all mythologies” kind of moment to me. In an hour and fifteen minutes, they were hoping I’d be able to share the big secret with them: what really works in teaching writing.

I felt overwhelmed for a moment because I’ve been teaching writing for 17 years and I’m still learning how to do it well.

But luckily, there IS a big secret to teaching writing that these pre-service teachers didn’t know about.

Write.

There you go.

That was the big wisdom I shared with them.

You need to write. Not for your college classes. Not for assignments. Not for grades.

You need to write because you have things to say that matter. You need to write because writing is how we figure out what we think, how we make sense of the world, how we make sense of ourselves.

You need to write so that you can remember what writing is really for. A writer has something to communicate to someone. There is a message, a purpose, an audience. Writing is about connection–with ourselves, with the topics and ideas that matter to us, with others.

Things might not go so horribly wrong in the teaching of writing if writing teachers actually wrote. If writing teachers wrote, they’d know that you don’t write a thesis statement before you write an essay. They’d know that every paragraph doesn’t have three supporting details. They’d know that writing worth reading doesn’t come in the form of five paragraphs. They’d know that no one wants to be forced to “write a thank-you note to the friend who gave you onion and garlic-flavored chewing gum” (a real daily journal prompt I just found online).

If writing teachers wrote, they’d know that engagement in writing comes when we write about what really matters. They’d know that writing is often (always?) a struggle. They’d know that writing needs time, space. They’d know that writers need readers who connect, not correct.

When I asked these pre-service teachers where they live like writers, they couldn’t tell me. They mostly write for school, they said, “and that doesn’t matter.”

I showed them my writer’s notebook. I talked about my blog. These are spaces where I live like a writer. These are the spaces where I figure out how to teach writing.

I love having a one-word answer to a complex question like “How do you teach writing effectively?” but write isn’t the full story.

Living a literate life is the pre-condition to all of my teaching, but what makes me a good teacher isn’t the quality of my literate life: it’s the quality of my reflection.

You have to write, then reflect.

I write, then I notice what I’ve done as a writer. Those noticings are the foundation of curriculum in my classroom.

My students write, and I notice what they’re doing as writers. We read our own writing and each other’s writing carefully, looking for what works, asking questions about purpose, craft, intention. We have spaces where we can live as writers–notebooks, blogs. We try things. We play, explore. We talk a lot. We make messes. We write for ourselves and for others. And constantly, we reflect on what we’re doing, on what makes the writing possible.

Writing in and of itself is not going to make anyone a good teacher of writing. But it’s the essential pre-condition and foundation of all good writing instruction.

It’s the place to start.

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Photo CC-BY Karin Dalziel

 

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13 thoughts on “What Pre-Service Teachers Really Need to Know About Teaching Writing

  1. Your response to these questions is perfect. In my work with so many teachers, trying to help them help their students with writing, by far the most important thing is that the teacher be a writer herself. Most writing projects understand this simple philosophy, and that is why the work of NWP is so important. Teachers become writers when they spend three weeks immersed in a writing community. Of course, it is possible for teachers, and in this case your pre-service teachers, to learn this on their own. I joined a writing group on Facebook to motivate and help hold myself accountable for writing every day. There are tons of groups and sites that offer this kind of service. When teachers practice the struggle of writers, they understand the struggle within our students. Writing is hard work, and unless we are willing to do what it takes — and show our struggles in front of our students, we will not be near as effective at teaching writing as we could be. Great post! Thank you!

    • It’s frustrating to me how much we know about the effective teaching of reading and writing and how little of that knowledge seems to make it into the hands of those who need it–the teachers of reading & writing. Workshop is enormously complex, yet it’s also very simple: a community of reader & writers engaged in reading & writing. As English teachers, developing our own reading & writing lives is the essential foundation of our work. I’m perplexed by teacher ed programs that don’t emphasize that. Thanks for sharing my post on your blog!

  2. Reblogged this on Three Teachers Talk and commented:
    What ALL Teachers Really Need to Know About Teaching Writing:
    WRITE.
    Simple yet complex. Honest and important. How can we really teach anything if we do not practice the craft of it ourselves?

  3. Amy, you are soooooooo right. THE only way to teach writing is to write. One can know the basics, the form, grammar and “whatever”, but knowing what it feels like to write, is ALL.

    You can learn the “stuff”, the formalities, if you will anywhere, but the drivenness is a feeling.

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  6. I see this every time I have students read their work aloud. I notice again and again how they look up from their writing and try to explain what they mean instead of being able to read what they have written. I am hoping that they will eventually see that the power is THEIRS to say what they “mean” instead of having to leave their writing and explain or clarify.

    Write. Read. Reflect. Revise. Repeat.

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