Who has Time to Teach Writing?

Sadly, I confess that those six words have run through my head and have even crossed my lips a few times.

 Writing

As a 5th and 6th grade teacher with an infatuation with math and science, teaching writing was not my priority.  My students needed to pass the state reading, math and science assessments, but since writing was only tested in 4th, 8th, & 10th grade, I didn’t have to worry about it.  Lucky me!  I could focus on the subjects that really matter.  With all the math and science concepts I had to cover, I did not have class time to devote to writing stories and 5 paragraph essays explaining what the students’ favorite subject are and why.

In the rare event that I did assign an essay, the amount of time it took to grade them was immense. And because I wasn’t that good at writing myself,  giving corrective feedback was a real challenge.

Five years ago, I would have never considered that I would be any good at writing, let alone enjoy it.  (Hence my avoidance of teaching it). But as I began to dabble in the realm of writing, I discovered the powerful relationship between writing and thinking.

Where it all began….

My respect for writing began to take root when I started working towards my National Board Certification.  At that time, I didn’t teach writing and didn’t like writing.  But since the National Board process is nothing but a bunch of writing, I had to do it. (But I could still avoid teaching it, by golly!)

Luckily, I had lots of ideas rolling around in my head and I was passionate about teaching, so I sat down at the computer and began to write all the seemingly wonderful thoughts that came to mind about the topic I thought I was supposed to be writing about.  Then I handed it to a colleague proudly to get some feedback.

This is the feedback I received:

  • Did you read the question?  Because you didn’t answer all of it.
  • Why are you writing this entry?  I don’t think the evaluator wants to read an account of what your college professor thinks about education.
  • Where’s the evidence to back up your claims?  You can’t just tell me that you are the best teacher since Socrates and expect me to take your word for it.

So I sat back down at the computer feeling sorry for myself and cried.

But when my pity party was over, I reflected on this feedback and learned a very important writing lesson that I somehow failed to learn when I was in school- When writing, you have to consider your purpose and audience and address all parts of the question with cogent support.

So I sat down a tried again…..and again……and again.  Until I had something that I was actually quite proud of.

While this process didn’t make me fall in love with writing, it did help me develop my craft.

So it wasn’t love at first “write”…..

But I began to love writing out of necessity.   For most of my teaching career, I have worked with fabulous teachers who were patient enough to listen to me ramble on about my thoughts and ideas about education.  But when I changed schools and was suddenly the new kid on the block trying to maintain a appearance of normalcy, I realized that I could not just start spouting off ideas all the time and expect them to still want to eat lunch with me.

I tried to contain these thoughts inside my head , but the pressure kept building and eventually I needed relief.  So I started to write them down.

And when I did, I made the most amazing discovery!

Not only did writing help me get these ideas out of my head and relieve some pressure, it helped me to clarify and solidify these ideas.  I was able to see these ideas, rather than just think them.

When I looked at my thoughts on paper, I could:

  • organize them
  • make connections among them
  • identify weaknesses in my thinking
  • evaluate them more objectively

I was astonished….and I was hooked!

The Moral of the Story…

I am completely embarrassed that as a teacher,  I  did not fully understand the power of the writing-thinking relationship.   When I thought about writing, I thought 5- paragraph essay.  I failed to see that writing was so much more.  I am ashamed that for some time, I failed my students in this area.  By neglecting to teach writing, I denied them the most powerful tool for thinking.

The primary job of every teacher, no matter what subject, is to teach students to think.  I am fully convinced that this can’t be done without teaching them to write.

Now, I teach writing in every class.  If the students can think it, they should write it.  When students put their ideas on paper, they free up space in their working memory to think more deeply- to manipulate, examine, and study the ideas from all angles.

Another benefit is that it allows me to see their understanding in black and white, enabling me to make better instructional decisions.

  • Want to know if your students fully understand the area of a circle? 

  Have them write to explain what would happen to the area of the circle if the circumference were doubled.

  •  Want to know if your students understood the main idea in the article they just read? 

Have them write to explain what the author was trying to say in 25 words or less.

 When I know what my students can do, I know exactly what to teach them.  There is no other way to peek into every student’s mind every single day.  And the more effort that is put into teaching students to write clearly, the better their ability to think.  It’s a win-win situation for everyone.

Prepare your students for a lifetime of success.  Empower your students with the ability to write.

What are some ways that you engage your students in writing and thinking?

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