A Lesson I Learned about Teaching Writing

Before I explain the lesson I learned, I have an anecdote to share. (It may seem unrelated, but trust me, it makes sense.)

At a family birthday party last night, my nephew received a present.  There were free backpacks in the house donated to my mother-in-law by somebody or other, so my resourceful sister-in-law took one and wrapped my nephew’s present in it.  As she handed my nephew his backpack-encased Legos, she said jokingly, “Look!  A bookbag! Isn’t it just what you always wanted?”  Not realizing there were Legos inside the bag, he replied forlornly,  “Well, not exactly.”

Lately, I’ve been cramming in a lot of teacher books that I should have read a while ago but didn’t make the time to read.  Now that I’m supposed to be an expert on all this stuff, I figured I should make the time.  I picked up the book Teaching Adolescent Writers by Kelly Gallagher first because I get extremely tired of students coming up to me with essays asking, “Is this good?”  To which, like my nephew, I want to reply, “Not exactly.”  (Actually, there are occasions where I would like to say, “Um, no, this is not good. What the frick were you thinking?” but decide it would be hurtful to my students.)

From Gallagher’s book, I picked up a few key points.  I STRONGLY encourage you to read (or at least skim) this book if you teach writing because it’s got some great ideas, suggestions, and honesty. Here are the key points I got:
1) Don’t prepare samples ahead of time.  Kids need to see your writing and thinking process.  Otherwise, they think an essay should magically be good in one draft.
2) Don’t grade an essay the first time you read it.  Skim it and pick less than 10 areas on which to comment, then return to students so they can edit/revise before grading.
3) Keep track of common errors while you read first drafts. Do mini-lessons with whole or small groups on areas in need of reinforcement, then allow them to seek you out for conferences individually.
4) Create the rubric WITH your students.  Pick a few areas on which to focus for the essay (and do your mini-lessons on those during the initial pre-writing/drafting process) and show them good and great examples.  Fill in the areas of the rubric with them, then allow them to choose 1-2 additional areas that they’ve been working on with their personal essays. (You approve these, of course.)
5) For goodness’ sake, DON’T PEER EDIT!  Peer REVISING is okay when you assign specific goals for the revising, but kids tend to ignore errors or “correct” non-mistakes when peer editing, so pick a few kids who are the “grammar police” in your class and point them out as resources for kids while editing.

Well, this is my insight. I see a professional development session forming in my brain…

I would love to hear your suggestions for additional teacher reads. I’m going to be re-skimming I Read It, But I Don’t Get It by Cris Tovani and Strategies that Work by Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis.  I will also be taking a 3 day workshop on CRISS (can’t remember what it stands for, but it’s reading/writing/learning strategies that my new district swears by).  More on those later…




3 responses to “A Lesson I Learned about Teaching Writing

  1. I model writing for my Kindergartners every day. They learn so much from my modeling.

    I read Work Hard. Be Nice. earlier this summer. It tells the story of the two men who created KIPP schools. Pretty inspirational.

  2. Some of those can work for teaching anything not just writing… Good to be reminded of for my music students too 😉

  3. Jenni Schuessler

    You make me want to teach writing…or anything for that matter…actually you make me want to go back to school so I can get a relevant education…just kidding. I’m not that far removed – yet. Love your blog. And I never realized that peer editing was such a waste of time, but IT SO IS. Hmmmm, who was the said nephew. I am guessing I know the said sister in law. Only one in our family who fits the description. Resourceful, organized to actually have b-day presents ahead of time, and sarcastic enough to make a comment like that. Love her! Good read Sammi!

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