A Creed in Rote
While thinking about my beliefs about teaching writing, I found myself also thinking about how I would once recite the Apostles’ Creed: “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth…” I could go on. As Catholics know, the Creed, a statement of the beliefs of Catholicism, is recited at each Sunday’s mass. But for me this recitation was a matter of rote. I never thought about what I was saying; I was just hoping to get the words right and the sticker next to my name in Sunday school. As many stickers as I lined next to my name, no Sunday-school teacher, priest, or deacon ever made the connection for me between what I was saying and the beliefs behind those statements.
I’m afraid the same connection is missing in my statements about writing. My beliefs about teaching—especially teaching writing—can come out the same way. “We must meet students where they are!” I proclaim. “We must be conscious of what is developmentally appropriate!” But what do those things mean? Like my former Sunday School teachers, I am not sure I give enough attention to the meaning that underlies this dogma.
The other day I overheard one of my fifth-graders talking to a fourth-grader. The fourth-grader had asked whether or not I was a good teacher to have. “She’s awesome!” Matt exclaimed. And then his face got serious. “But, you do not want her,” he warned, “she makes you write like every day.”
Part of me wanted to butt in and say, “Hey! Like, there’s a reason we write every day, you know!” But then I started thinking about how maybe I haven’t made it clear to Matt—or any of my students—why we write every day, why we read our writing aloud so much, why we write thank-you notes after field trips and speakers, why we write so many descriptions, why we write about things that matter to us, why we write reactions to things we’ve read or things in the news, why we write so many quick memoirs before we pick one to take to a final piece, why we pay so much attention to the writing we read, why I do so much writing…
I guess there’s a lot I haven’t explained to Matt.
My Beliefs About Writing
So, Matt, I owe you an explanation (and maybe you could follow up with Ethan before August).
Five basic beliefs guide my teaching of writing:
- Writers need time for practice.
- Writers need models.
- Writers need meaningful, specific feedback.
- Writers need to write for authentic audiences.
- Writers need to write for real reasons.
But, Matt, I don’t necessarily broadcast those beliefs in those words on a daily basis. Instead, you see the byproducts of those beliefs—you see the action that comes as a result of what I believe about teaching writing. I’m going to explain my beliefs, but before I use the teacher-talk, I’m going to point out what you see every day and show you how it connects to those beliefs I just listed—I’m going to show and not just tell, like I’m always encouraging you to do.
Writers Need Time for Practice
We write every day for a reason. Learning how to write effectively takes a lot of practice. Matt, you play soccer, and knowing Mr. Viseur, your coach, I know you practice a lot. And it pays off, too—what did you win your last game by? Four, five goals? Writing is the same way. The more you practice writing, the better you’ll get.
Writing itself is a process that takes time. How many times have I asked you to read over what you’ve written? This is just part of the process. Often teachers assign a writing assignment—quick or extended—and we forget to emphasize how important it is to add to your first thoughts and revise what you’ve already written.
Every year I have parents who come in and say, “Her punctuation is atrocious!” or “He’s always struggled with writing; his spelling is awful!” Matt, I’ve even heard you say how there are words you misspell and punctuation you misuse. But writing is so much more than spelling and punctuation. Sure, these things are really important, but I’ll talk about that later. Remember at the beginning of the year, when you wrote me a letter about yourself, to let me know what you wanted me to know about you? You wrote me maybe a paragraph—there is so much more to know about you!
Many students get so concerned about spelling things correctly and using the right punctuation that they forget what they’re writing about. Initially, I am much more concerned when you have nothing to say. Writing is about communicating thought. We use punctuation to make those thoughts more clear. If you have nothing to say—you’re only writing a sentence or two—what’s the sense in clarifying it?
Learning to write well takes time and practice. Teachers and parents expect you students to write with eloquence, conventional spelling and grammar, appropriate voice, and clarity at a very young age. But to learn these skills—which are difficult skills to master at any age—writers need time.
What You Know and Feel
Getting you to write more was my first goal for you this year. Writing should come with some ease and volume, and you should be able to write for a sustained amount of time. To develop this ability, we do a lot of writing about what we know and feel. Remember when you wrote about sticking that knife through your hand? Talk about writing what you feel! Your description of the shock of seeing the dripping blood and the point of the knife coming through—the thought of it still gives me the chills…makes me a little queasy. You had so much to say about it, so much detail to report and describe, and it ended up being some of the best writing you did all year.
For some students—although they know and feel plenty—getting it down on paper can be a challenge. I know how much you love to talk, Matt, and how much it helps you to talk—especially to Sam—before you write. That’s called “verbal rehearsal”—you get to rehearse what you want to say before you write it. There are many people in our class who need to first “get out” what they know and feel by talking, to rehearse what they will write on the paper. We often talk about the fact that the word “hear” is in the word rehearsal. Sometimes we need to hear what our words sound like and see the reaction on someone else’s face before we feel comfortable and confident enough to write it down.
At parent-teacher conferences this last year, your mom asked me, “Why so much writing?” Writing is hard work—just like playing an instrument is hard work. Once when I heard one of my other favorite authors, Katie Wood Ray, speak about writing, she said, “I write in my writer’s notebook throughout the day—I try things out: I jot down ideas and questions; I write descriptions and transcribe overheard conversations; I compose short poems and short story ideas; I copy down neat quotes I read in airplane magazines and on billboards.” As writers, we are not taking each piece we write to a final, polished piece—just as not every song played by a pianist is a recital or concert performance. But we try many things out in our writer’s notebooks, practicing before we select pieces to polish and share with others. The more we try out, the better we perform when it counts, the more we develop the ability to write with ease and craft and within conventional standards.
Writers Need Models
Matt, you know how I’m always writing when you’re writing? That’s because I’m not one who can just say, “Trust me, try it.” I have to show you that I’m trying, too. I think there is truth in the saying, “actions speak louder than words.” If I can show you that I write and model my process for you, I think you’ll learn more.
Remember when we were writing thank-you notes for Young Ameritowne, and I wrote mine in front of the class? You were so surprised by the amount of times I read over my words while I was writing. It never dawned on me that that was something other people don’t necessarily do. Andrew pointed it out, and others agreed that they had no idea how reading your writing out loud as you write helps you make sure your words and sentences flow together. I could have just told you all of that, but would it have made as much sense?
I’m not the only model in the classroom. We have one of the greatest book collections of any classroom I know. My favorite is still Owl Moon (Yolen 1987) but I know you really liked when I shared something I was reading at home—that story Stephen King included in his book On Writing (2000)—the story about when he had to keep going back to the ear doctor, which gave you the idea about your “knife through the hand” story. We spend a lot of time looking at writing through our writer eyes—as opposed to our reader eyes. We followed Cynthia Rylant’s structural model in When I was Young in the Mountains (1993), which you used to write about going up to Ziah’s family’s cabin in Wyoming. We also used Jerry Spinelli’s one-sentence leads, like those found in Stargirl (2002) and Wringer (2004). Remember how shocked you were by my lead, “I was a shoplifter when I was five years old”? We talked about how one-sentence leads leave you asking questions, and Peter asked if I was still a shoplifter! I’m not, by the way.
Twenty-six other models fill our classroom. You and all the other writers in the classroom serve as models for each other. Remember when we were writing descriptions of people in our class and Michael included that perfect detail about your hair—”his hair hides his face like a cover to a book, hiding the mysteries within.” That was so cool! We talked about how effective his simile was and how it created an interesting picture of you. Michael was really proud, and the rest of us added another tool to our writing toolboxes.
Writers Need Meaningful, Specific Feedback
Everyone likes to know when they’ve done something well. Personally, I like to know exactly what I’ve done well so I can do it again. I’m greedy that way. I try to make sure I give you specific feedback when we’re looking at your writing together or when I take your writing home to read. I want to help you become aware of what you do well as a writer. For that reason, I usually begin our conferences with the question, “How’s it going?” or “What’s going well?” You know how often I say, “Be specific,” and the neat thing for me is how specific you are becoming with naming what you do well in your writing.
It’s also really important for you to know what you want to work on or what you want me to look out for, just as it’s important for me to know you as a writer and know what we could work on together to improve your writing. Matt, you’ve been trying new things with sentence structure lately. As a result, you and I have been talking more about semicolons and other ways to combine independent clauses. You’ve even added the information from our conversations to your conference record in the back of your writer’s notebook, on the note card where we keep track of our conferences. That note card reminds you that you know when a semicolon or “a comma + and” is needed and also reminds you that you are responsible for checking your writing for semicolon need when you are editing!
Writers Need to Write for Authentic Audiences
Remember in February, after we went to Young Ameritowne to learn about economics, having a job, and running a town, we wrote to the companies who donate money to Young Ameritowne, which is a nonprofit organization? Sam pointed out how difficult it was to write such an important thank you. Remember how you wanted to tell the companies how much fun you had and Hannah reminded you how you needed to show them by being specific about what was fun and what you learned?
You and everyone else in our class write for so many different audiences! Knowing your audience and what is appropriate for that audience is necessary. You and Kyle and Emily brought in some of your parents’ business letters, which we studied to find out what readers of business letters expect. Remember when Luke was writing his thank you to the Young Ameritowne supporters, and he wrote, “Young Ameritowne was adorable!” He allowed us to use his writing to talk about word choice in a business letter. We decided that although “adorable” is a great word, he might want to choose a different word and use his explaining details to describe Young Ameritowne to the supporters.
When you write for an audience it becomes important for your writing to be polished. That need to become more polished reminds me of my apartment. I love my apartment with its half-dead houseplants and unmade bed, but when I know someone’s coming over, you can smell the PineSol a mile away! I spend the week before my visitors arrive scrubbing and sweeping and washing and folding and dusting—dusting is the one I always forget about, the one I’m hurrying through one last time as the buzzer signals that my company has arrived. I want my guests to focus on all the reasons I picked my apartment—the way the sun flows through the huge picture window and brightens the whole place, the way the mountains peek through the space between the two houses across the street, the way the orange pillows and my red couch bring warmth to the living room. I want my visitors to see the things I’m proud of—not dirty dishes in the sink or an inch of dust on the dresser (the dresser that I built myself). I don’t want silly things I’ve left undone to overshadow the hard work I’ve accomplished.
Matt, writing is the same way. I want people who read your writing to see the beauty in your words—especially the way you bring humor to nearly everything you write. Spelling mistakes and punctuation mishaps can be the unmade bed or the pile of dirty laundry that overshadow the true strength of your work. But I know, for me, it sometimes takes a few visitors to make me finally clean those dishes or sweep the living room floor. The same can be true for writing, and that is why it is so important to have authentic audiences for your writing.
Not only do real audiences force you to clean up the editing stuff; knowing someone will read your writing forces you to be sure what you are trying to say is clear. After nine months of reading your writing, I know you and I know what you are trying to say. That’s why someone else has to read your writing every once in a while—so that it forces you to go beyond “Oh, she knows what I mean.”
Writers Need to Write for Real Reasons
Having a real reason to write is as important as having a real audience. We write for many different reasons throughout the day. We write to reflect, like when we read the article about alcohol and many people related it to those young college students we’d read about who died. We write to hold our thinking, like when we wrote about the different layers of the earth in science. We write to create, like the pieces of historical fiction we are writing with our immigrant research. We write to consider our thinking, like when we write about what we’re reading. We write to remember, like when you wrote about winning first place at the Destination Imagination regional tournament. We also write so others know we can write, like on the Writing CSAP we took last month. You’re right, we do write a lot!
Living My Beliefs
Each year I stand up at Back to School Night and attempt to convince a classroom full of parents and guardians that I know what I’m doing, that I know how to teach their children. But it wasn’t until this year, when parents came in and wrote with us as writers, so they could see firsthand the work we do every day, that I felt confident I had convinced them. Matt, remember how Lauren’s dad wrote that great series of pieces about the dogs he had growing up and Katie’s mom wrote about going home to St. Louis? I think they could see we are a community of writers. We make decisions and choices as writers based on what we know about writing. We are constantly sharing and on the lookout for quality writing.
My beliefs as a teacher of writing are nothing like the Apostle’s Creed was for my young Catholic self. I’m no longer looking for the Sunday school sticker or competing with my sister to see who can say the words the loudest. I’m looking for evidence. I’m looking for evidence in my classroom of the beliefs I claim to hold, the beliefs that supposedly guide my teaching. As I progress as a teacher and continue to reflect on my practice, I see a little more evidence every day.