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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

When I was a kid, every weekend, my parents would drive me to Loon Mountain in New Hampshire to master the sport of skiing -- and downhill racing, in particular. On the chairlift, my instructors would critique the technique of those skiing below us. On the racecourse, I would spend hours studying and eventually trying to mimic the most experienced racers.

I can’t overstate the importance of effective modeling in helping me become an amazing skier. Effective modeling is also how I learned to write well. I spent equal time and effort actually watching other, more experienced writers write.

In high school, I sat beside terrific teachers and paid close attention as they actively reworked my sentence structure and diction. Just as I absorbed knowledge by watching better skiers, here too, teachers provided effective modeling for me to emulate. I wish to make perfectly clear that they certainly didn't do my work for me. Together, rather, we worked toward my overall mastery.

Writing for the student paper of Brandeis University, I spent more time watching others write, rewrite, and edit. In fact, during my first year in The Justice newsroom, I did little else than observe what happened on production night, which actually started around mid-afternoon and went until the early morning hours of the next day. Years later, I can still hear my more experienced peers calling for punchier prose, tighter paragraphs, and better quotes.

I’ve kept all of this in mind when teaching writing to my students. Along those lines, I wish to share some helpful advice.

1. Writers are the Best Teachers

To teach effective writing, you yourself must be an effective writer. We can't teach what we don't know, and when it comes to writing, it's important to continue honing your craft. If you haven't engaged in much formal writing since college, you will remain a less effective teacher. No matter what you teach, try starting a blog, writing articles, or developing short stories -- all terrific ways to engage the mind and keep your skills sharp. Reading is important, but reading alone isn't enough to strengthen your writing skills, or to make you a credible authority on the subject.

2. The Value of Sharing

No matter what you teach, share your written work. I always share with my students and ask for their feedback -- even their criticism. In that respect, it's essential for students to recognize not only your skill, but also that you are interested and engaged in constantly refining a crucial life skill. For one lesson, I even share with students my high school, college, and graduate school essays, and they analyze what I improved upon over time. I'm excited about sharing my work, and that in turn helps to get my students excited about doing the same.

3. Write for Your Students

No matter what you teach, produce writing in front of students. When I am teaching about formal introductory paragraphs, for instance, my history students think of a worthy historical question for me to tackle. With the projector on, I then write out the paragraph, sharing my thought process along the way. Students observe how I work and rework my prose, and how I place a premium on concision. They also critique my work, which in turn helps them become more cognizant of not repeating similar mistakes. Also, my admitting my weaknesses helps students become less defensive about their own work, and in turn more open to criticism.

4. The Writing Workshop

Create workshop environments, with multiple stations focusing on different aspects of writing. In my history classroom, I appoint a student who's great at transitions to staff the "transitions" booth, and a student great at topic sentences to staff the "topic sentence" booth. Of their own volition, or with my suggestion, students visit whatever booth fits their needs. As far as instruction goes, this maximizes utility while freeing me to meet one-on-one with the neediest students.

5. Seeking Feedback

Urge students to share their work with each other and online. Few writers have ever improved by keeping their work to themselves. As the teacher, I know that my opinion holds significant weight. But the same is true of what others think, especially one's peers. In an increasingly flat, digital age, students must feel comfortable and confident with sharing their work for the whole world to see. In that regard, teachers should help students produce appropriate, high-quality content.

6. Real-World Writing

Most importantly, teachers must do whatever they can to convey the importance and usefulness of mastering effective writing. No matter what craft or profession students wish to pursue, I make it clear at every turn that knowing how to write well will play a significant role in their success. From science, math, engineering, law, history, and journalism to anything else one can think of, the ability to express oneself clearly in writing is absolutely essential. Next year, to help get that point across, I hope to invite various professionals to speak to students about how writing plays a role in their lives.

How do you teach effective writing? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.


Comments (12)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Michael Alderman's picture
Michael Alderman
Content Manager | TEAM Schools

Hi David,
Totally agree with your first point. When I started teaching writing, I hadn't written a basic essay or short story since I was in high school. Breaking that down for sixth graders (who were academically behind significantly) was a real challenge. Once I started writing exemplars and conferencing with them, I definitely saw an improvement in my own writing.

I would also add to your reasoning for number one. As a writer, I felt much more creatively satisfied once I started writing with my students. It can be grueling to write only lesson plans and student handouts if you are a writer on the inside. Teachers need outlets for creativity outside of lesson planning and making charts for their rooms, just like anyone else needs it.

David Cutler's picture
David Cutler
High School History, Government and Journalism teacher from Boston

Michael, thank you for your response and kind words. You mention a terrific point. I also feel more creatively satisfied when I start writing with my students. But I think it works both ways. More still, you are entirely correct that "teachers need outlets for creativity outside of lesson planning." In fact, for this very reason, I started writing and reporting about education. It sounds like you are doing great things. Keep it up, and enjoy the summer! - David Cutler

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