Here’s a simple question that I like to ask folks whenever I have a chance to. And look â€” we’ve a chance right now:
When was the last time you wrote with your students?
Simple question, but I suspect the answer’s far from simple. I’ve heard lots of excuses when I’ve asked that question. Usually, I hear something like, “Well, I’d like to be doing that, but we’re just so busy.” Or “I’m not a writer.”1
I don’t care how busy you are, or how important your other tasks are â€” writing is a foundational skill that demands a presence in your classroom on a regular basis. And that writing should involve you doing writing as well as assigning it. If I’ve learned nothing else from the National Writing Project, I’ve learned that.
Luckily, I’ve learned far more than that from my time working with, for and through the National Writing Project, a national network of professional development and advocacy for writing, the teaching of writing, and the teachers of writing. The group has influenced much of who I am as a writer, teacher and thinker, and I’m proud to be associated with them.
You might know that the National Writing Project is struggling for funding at the moment. Our federal government has eliminated NWP’s long-time government support in a series of foolish budget maneuvers. If you’d like to take action to help restore that funding, as I’m trying to do, I’d encourage you to move quickly. Here’s a collection of ideas about what you might do.
Make some time for writing
But back to writing. It never ceases to amaze me that we spend so much time talking about the importance of things that we do not do. My friend Chris Lehmann says that we don’t actually demonstrate our belief in the importance of something until we put it into our schedule – until we budget time for it.
So I ask again: when’s the last time you wrote with your students?
There are plenty of complicated things that deserve our attention. Our society’s complex and nuanced. And there are plenty of educational initiatives that we’ve got to pay attention to, and learn the vocabulary of, and begin to deconstruct so we can better understand them. The National Writing Project has been paying attention to many of them.2 They’ve also been working hard to ensure that teachers lead the way in learning â€” both for students and teachers themselves.
As John Norton told me recently:
NWP is one of the best, if not THE best, examples of teachers taking control of their own professional growth. Building a national teacher-run PD program back in the day was teacher leadership before teacher leadership was cool.
Cool, indeed. But you can engage in the most foundational work of the National Writing Project if you’ll do something very simple on a regular basis:
Write with your students.
It is essential that we write with our students. They need to see us struggle and grasp and stick and unstick and giggle and fume and wander and come back in order to get the right words in the right order to say the thing we think we need to be saying. They need to go through that, too. Regularly.
I use the word “writing” because it’s the right word for me â€” but perhaps you’d feel more comfortable if I said “composing” instead. Perhaps you’re fired up about helping students design and make things. That’s writing, composition, and I hope you’re designing and making things along with your students. Writing isn’t about English teachers. Human beings, all of us, are communicators. And we all need the practice to get better.
We’re not talking about a large outlay of time. A little bit of regular time can make a big difference. Ten minutes a day. Every few days. Regularly. Start or end your classes with time for writing about what’s important that day. Give students choices for what they might write about.
Oh, and one more thing â€” let them share what they wrote. Not every day, but at least sometimes, with you, or the class, or the world. There’s magic in our students and their ideas. It’s a crime to never let it surface.
You write to find out what you know
In the 21st century, it’s all about helping our students develop their 21st century skills, of course. And critical thinking is powered by thoughtful reflection and summary, which is fostered by writing. You don’t know what you know until you write. Sometimes, the person that you’re communicating with when you write is yourself.
It’s sexy to say that these are 21st century ideas. But what’s true today was true in the 20th century. In 1935, Francis Grinstead told a roomful of English teachers at the NCTE Annual Convention that:
The young people we are teaching to write are likely to think of “writers” as a class apart from themselves. The term “writer” or “author” immediately puts a man or woman on a pedestal. The first thing that must be proved to the student is that human beings are writers.
When a student sees that those who do the writing of the world are human beings, and great writers in proportion as they are human beings – not in proportion to their freedom from grammatical errors – he begins to examine his own experiences and reactions as possible material. When he knows that writing exists for conveying information or ideas from one mind to another, he will try to write like himself instead of a prattling imitation of some current idol.
Help your students to recognize that writers are human beings. And that you, and they, are both.
If you’re an educational leader, you might be thinking: “Yes. I’ll encourage my teachers to write more with their students.” And thanks for that. But that’s not enough. You should be saying instead, “I will find time to write with my staff, to model for them what it is that writing together looks like.” Because it’s that important. And, you might learn a thing or two about each other as you write together. Consider it a form of play.
Of course, it’s easy to think something’s important but not remember to follow through. The federal government, while stressing the importance of education, keeps forgetting to fund programs, like the National Writing Project, that make a significant different in the lives of those they serve. Remember to write for them, too. Remember to write.
One last time – but a slightly different question – When’s the next time you’ll write with your students?
Your answer’d better be “Soon.”
- That one hurts. Of course you are. Everyone’s a writer. More on that in a minute. [↩]
- Plenty more to explore. Head to NWP’s Website or over to Digital Is. [↩]
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Thank you for this encouragement. I’m a science and social studies teacher and write with my students all the time…and it’s hard. I don’t know what I’m doing because I’m not formally trained to do this…but I recognized that the lab reports they were turning in weren’t understandable. I had no idea what had happened in the lab. I had no idea what they thought they learned. We had a problem.
But you can’t just write conclusions. How boring!!! Or at least I thought it sounded pretty boring. So we started writing more and since I didn’t know what I was doing…we started copying people who we decided were good science writers.
We pulled copies of authors they liked to read (and that’s a whole other story and may be part of the reason they don’t write too well)…and tried to tear apart why we liked their writing. And then WE tried to re-create that style using our content or what we had just learned in class. We call it thinking/speaking with an eraser because if it doesn’t sound too good or it looks bad when we get it on paper…we just erase it and DO (do over). We also make everyone we know help us…moms, dads, uncles, grandpas, the school resource officer and on and on.
Slowly we’ve gotten better. We trust each other and more importantly…help each other. Our most productive common writing space is our class blog and as they earn the privilege…their own blog. It gives us a natural give-and-take venue and hopefully the technology of it all falls away and it’s more about the ideas. But the techie fun really never completely disappears because someone finds something very cool, shares it with everyone and then everyone has to try it out.
So enough of what I am doing..but I am excited for the science/social studies teacher who doesn’t know a thing about writing but writes all the time. My kids feel more competent and seem not to notice when they have to write explanations of things now.
And best of all….I understand exactly what they did in their labs, how they did it, what they found out and what they thought it all meant. Instead of struggling to decipher their writing, we talk about science!!!!!
What you’ve describe is brilliant. And, yes, hard. Things worth doing are usually hard. But Rhe community of writers you’ve built sounds powerful. And the writing is helping you to do the science better.
Thank you for sharing your story. I suspect it’ll be helpful to others.
I agree with Bud’s comment – you’ve built a community of writers and it’s a community built on shared hard work and trust. Even more, your story should remind us that we are all writers and that while writing with students is hard, it’s so very worth it in the end. What a nice compliment your comment is to Bud’s blog on the NWP. Thanks for sharing.
The skills you are teaching are the ones that businesses and colleges are looking for (writing for the profession, flexibility in writing, written communication). There are some great resources for writing for the professions. What you are teaching is scientific rhetoric, the basis of which students will need to learn for whichever field they will write for.
You might want to check out this blog written by the faculty at the University at Albany’s Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences Dept. They integrate this into their teaching, including having students guest writing, commenting, and/or cowriting the blog.
Thanks for reminding us how lucky we are to have the NWP and how we benefit from this project. I also thank you for the push to get involved in protecting the NWP. It’s interesting that your blog and Marsha’s comment mirror a conversation I was having with Susan Davis earlier today: that teachers should write. And once teachers start the process of reflection, commenting and contributing to a larger community, they demonstrate a type a transparency in learning not always the found in our classrooms. Through our own efforts as a teacher-writers, we can demonstrate to our own student-writers how to think out loud.
I read a suggestion once to show students drafts of your writing (especially if you have published or have a report that is circulated for feedback). This helps them to realize that you never write one draft of anything and it is a constant work in progress. It also helps them to realize that the feedback you give them on their own writing is natural. When all they see are the finished product (i.e. texts, webpages, blogs…), they don’t realize that even professionals are constantly revising.
I use an audit report I cowrote with a team. I had the feedback/comments and the final report. I couldn’t believe how it motivated students to seek feedback and be open to ways to improve their writing!
It is surprising to me when we have such a focus on international tests and how we are doing internationally with our educational system, that the focus has been solely on science and math education. It as if these two areas are separate from reading and writing, and reading and writing (which was reported as falling or having no progress in improving) is not important. In the schools of education, money is gushing in to improve “science and math education”, the definition excluding reading and writing. There needs to be a push from science, technology, and math educators to integrate and train teachers in writing and reading across the curriculum, as NWP does (i.e. learning writing in context).