A Philosophy for Teaching Writing: Structure, Purpose & Passion
It was a Saturday sometime in August of 2007. I had just two days until the first day of school to organize a room loaded with textbooks, workbooks, piles and piles of worksheets, dictionaries and teacher curriculum that walked me step by step through the teaching process for all the core subjects, reading, spelling, math and science.
As for writing... I had some six trait posters and a pile of dusty grammar workbooks.
It was an overwhelming mess, but somehow I got it done in time for my very first day teaching. When my fourth grade students walked through the door that first day, I was elated. I greeted them at the door and when I told them to sit in their assigned seats, they actually listened. I had an odd, out of body sensation. I couldn't believe they actually listened to me, they believed I was in charge and were even eager to learn! I soon learned teaching was and always has been my calling.
I adored everything about teaching- the fast paced nature, the relationships, the laughing, the routine, the conversations, it really is a blast and oh so much work.
That first year, I taught from the textbook. I came in at seven am, made copies and even read the teacher script word for word from the teacher manual. At a professional development session I attended the trainer said, "You must teach this to fidelity if you want it to work." This program had obviously been studied and tested, so of course I would follow it.
That first year was fantastic because I knew I had chosen the right career. But, there was something amiss. I was bored by the textbook teaching and my students were bored too. I quickly learned to think on my feet to engage students in what we were doing. I'd tell stories and let students tell stories too. I even started doing things my students were doing, right alongside them. When I asked students to write in their notebook, I did too. I wanted to experience what my students were experiencing. I wanted to figure a way out of the textbook, a way to connect with my students.
One year, I can't remember which, I read The Reading Zone by Nancy Atwell and was taken aback by the simplicity of the approach. Atwell argues to teach reading well, you need to allow students to read.
I couldn't believe it.
So...scripted programs with excerpts from stories where students are directed through a series of comprehension strategies, multiple reads and then presented with a test at the end of the week, wasn't the answer? I was ecstatic.
I researched more about this workshop method of teaching reading. I read books like The Art of Teaching Reading by Lucy Calkins and When Kids Can't Read by Kylene Beers. When my husband and I moved and I began teaching at a school that utilized The Units of Study by Lucy Calkins, my teaching was completely transformed.
I read every Lucy Calkins book I could get my hands on, even the Kindergarten books when I was teaching third grade. The Art of Teaching Writing is a must read for all writing teachers.
I believe the reason these books resonated with me, was because in essence, they taught me my philosophy of teaching:
I'm a positive role model.
I am an avid reader and writer.
I care about what my students have to say and what they are interested in reading and writing.
I engage my students in the meaningful work of being a reader and writer.
I learn and grow from working with and reading books by other educators.
Today, I am now in my tenth year of teaching at a middle school as a 6th grade core teacher. I have a very clear philosophy for teaching writing, it is quite simple really. I believe you only need three things to successfully teach writing:
I love using the workshop model structure because students spend the majority of their time writing and reading. I can teach skills during the first ten minutes in the form of a mini lesson. Then, students are off to write or read and I’m off to support them in their use of strategies through conferring.
Students need to feel their work matters, that their writing will be read and accepted by a supportive community. For more formal, long range writing, students can publish online. For more informal, short term writing pieces, students should have the opportunity to share with the class. The teacher shouldn’t be the only audience, other students, the school, parents and the world should be!
I’ve always loved telling students stories from my childhood and writing what I expect them to write. Sharing my experiences, my stories, my process with students has been the key to connecting with them on a very real level about what it takes to be a writer. Over the years, I’ve come to understand that students become passionate about what the adults in their lives are passionate about. Students are adept at reading subtle undertones in a teacher’s voice and behavior. When I have a positive attitude about reading and writing, even when it is tough, my students are more willing to take on that attitude as well. Writers need be able to choose topics they feel strongly about. Writers need to feel their stories and experiences are important. Writers need a supportive audience and community. Finally, writers need passionate teachers who write and listen alongside their students.
About the Author
Amanda Werner is a full time English and History sixth grade teacher in the Bay Area. She has been teaching for ten years and still feels like a novice. Every year is a unique and exciting challenge to inspire a new group of students in becoming avid readers and writers. Amanda reads educational literature voraciously and writes about the teaching of writing on her website amandawritenow.com. She also writes curriculum for Teach Box, a monthly subscription service for creative English teachers. Amanda received her B.A. in English Literature with an emphasis in Humanities at Western Washington University. She has both an elementary and secondary teaching license and a mathematics credential. In her free time, Amanda loves being outdoors with her humorous husband and sweet and spunky two and a half year old daughter.