My journey to shoot for the moon.

Teaching Writing

Honestly, I don’t think that there is anything scarier for me than teaching writing.  I don’t remember learning to write essays.  I remember writing pages and pages of text with footnotes and annotations.  But I don’t remember learning how to figure out the content of what to write.  It is one of those things that I just do.  I don’t think about it.  I also rarely do a plan for an essay.Throughout my Graduate classes, I wrote my essays on the computer.  Most of the time, I had a vague idea of what I was going to write in my head.  I didn’t have a written plan.  I also didn’t do a lot of editing.  Chris proofread my papers, generally finding few errors.  I never got less than an A.

When I was an undergraduate, I used note cards for research.  I remember putting the note cards in order of how I was going to use them, but I don’t think that I used an outline or plan of any kind.  I graduated with a 3.5 GPA in my English courses.  I guess that I knew what I was doing.

Teaching  writing to Elementary School students was easy.  You did a plan, usually a web.  You wrote a topic sentence and then supported the topic.  You used descriptive (or “juicy”) words.  During my last year as a paraprofessional, I used Every Child A Writer.  I LOVED this way of teaching writing to SPED students.  It involved a lot of modeling and teaching step-by-step-by-step.  It usually didn’t require a lot of thought or planning on my part.  However, when I was teaching, it was very active on my part.  After I modeled, the students would need help and monitoring of their efforts at writing.  The amazing thing was that the kids I was working with became better writers.  They did it by learning how to write and copying how I did it.  Of course, I was copying how the curriculum said to teach it.  The important thing is that it worked.

Grammar is a weak area for me.  It isn’t that I don’t know what is correct, I do.  I just can’t explain why.  Or what.  For example, today I was working with my lowest class on writing a sentence.  Somehow they got to High School believing that they don’t need capitals and periods.  My professional goal for the year (although I less than 2 months to reach my goal) is to have students increase their skills in organization and conventions in their writing.  So, after watching my students write answers to Reading Comprehension questions without capitals and punctuation, I figured I’d better do some re-teaching.  Usually in this class, I work with my ESL student 1:1 and then have him work independently while I work with the remaining kids (4 on a good day, 2 today).  But, since what we were going to be working on was basic, I had my ESL student join us.

Here is the puzzling part to me, my ESL student has a better idea of correct grammar and conventions than my native English-speaking students.  I wrote the following sentence on the board – my dog runs – and asked the students to tell me what was wrong with the sentence.  First, they told me it wasn’t a sentence.  Then they told me that I was missing something.  My sentence should read – my dog runs fast – They told me that – my dog runs – wasn’t a sentence.  I asked them if it had a subject and a verb.  They could identify both of those.  But they never told me that it needed a capital letter or a period.  My ESL student told me that.  So, we had – My dog runs. – on the board.  I asked them to make it a better sentence.  They told me – My dog runs fast. – then they decided – My dog runs very fast. – They thought that this was a good sentence.  I prompted them to tell me about the dog – My blue dog runs very fast. –  Then they came up with – My little blue dog, lucky, runs very fast. – again they didn’t know what was wrong with the sentence as I wrote it.  My ESL student told me that Lucky needed a capital letter.

I was able to teach the students that every sentence had a subject and a predicate (the naming part and the telling part).  They seemed to get that.  So, I had them write 3 good sentences each.  My ESL student, who is working on writing at a fairly basic level, wrote 3 adequate sentences.  They weren’t outstanding, but they were good enough.  One of my other students wrote – my favorite team are the san diego chargers. . .  – I read it aloud to him several times and he couldn’t tell me what was wrong.  My ESL student told him – is – not are.

But as my goal is to improve writing (and the whole school is working on this), I think that I’m going to need to do some direct instruction in writing.  And this scares me because there are times I don’t feel qualified to be teaching writing.  Literature I can teach, no problem. Writing, I know how to do it, but I’m not sure I know how to teach it.

I’m preparing for my Formal Observation this week.  Actually, it is tomorrow (but by the time you get to read this, it will be a few days past).  I’m torn between teaching a lesson from Write Like This:  Teaching Real World  Writing Through Modeling and Mentor Texts by Kelly Gallagher or introducing a new short story.   Teaching the short story will not involve much in the way of stretching my teaching abilities.  We would do a pre-reading activity, go over vocabulary and then I would read the story aloud.  This is very similar to what I do with every story or novel I am reading with my classes.

Write Like This: Teaching Real-World Writing Through Modeling and Mentor Texts.
Teaching a writing lesson, however, would be  a stretch of my abilities.  The lesson we have to work on is to review the types of Real-World Writing Purposes and then pick a topic for me to expand upon.  From that topic, I will work with the students to turn it into 18 potential paper topics (aligned with the Real-World Writing Purposes).  Then, I would model writing for 5 minutes on the first topic.  As I write, I would think aloud and explain what I was thinking while I was writing.  Next, I would move to the next topic and write for 5 minutes.  Again, I would share my thoughts with the students while writing.   Then the students would take a turn at coming up with their topics and  writing for 5 minutes on their topic.  We would continue going back and forth (me modeling, students writing) until we had explored all 18 topics.
The positive of doing this lesson is that it would be risk-taking for me.  That is important in education.  There is the potential for a number of lessons that have nothing to do with writing and it would encourage higher-level thinking.  However, if I am unable to write on the topic I will look a bit silly.  If I have writer’s block or just can’t think of anything, it would be a teachable moment, but not so good for my observation.
I am leaning towards teaching the writing lesson plan, even though it scares me.  I think that it will be the better lesson to showcase my talents and demonstrate how I can adapt.  But, writing is scary.  And knowing that I am going to be observed makes it very scary for me.
I’ll keep you posted.
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Comments on: "Teaching Writing" (5)

  1. Teaching writing is difficult. This is my fourth year of teaching, and I am just now starting to feel confident in my ability to “teach” writing. I have been in the same boat as you. I can write, but teaching…I just had no clue where to start.

    Should I focus on…Grammar? Spelling? Sentence structure? Ideas? I’ve put a similar sentence on the board and had similar issues with the students not recognizing the very basics–periods at the end of sentences and capitalization rules. I could go on and on about the struggle with teaching writing.

    But if there is one thing I have learned about writing, it’s how important it is to model it. If they write a journal entry, I write with them. If they write an essay, I’m writing an essay. If I ask them to revise a paragraph, I have them watch and help me revise one of mine first before they revise one of their own. I think it’s important to let students watch an experienced writer struggle through the same issues they do. I think watching us overcome writing obstacles gives them some coping devices for when they struggle.

    Love Kelly Gallagher. Read his book Readicide. I’ll have to check this one out! My favorite books about writing are ACTS of Teaching: How to Teach Writing by Joyce Armstrong Carroll and Edward E. Wilson, What a Writer Needs by Ralph Fletcher, and Breaking the Rules: Liberating Writers Through Innovative Grammar Instruction by Edgar H. Schuster.

    Great post! Hope your observation went well! 🙂

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    • A couple of years ago, when I was a paraprofessional, I worked with an amazing teacher. She hadn’t been teaching long (second career), but her strength was teaching writing. I learned so much from her. However, I’m finding it a bit hard to translate what I learned from her (for teaching 3rd grade) to High School. Keep reading – more to come on teaching writing.

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  2. “Writing is scary,” says it all. As a novelist, I can tell you that writing is scary because it’s so hard. Especially punctuation.

    Blessings – Maxi

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  3. […] sure if I was going to teach a writing lesson or a reading lesson (you can read the post here).  I was still undecided when I left for work in the morning, although I had two lesson plans […]

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