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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.

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

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.
Facilitator

This is nothing new in the world of Writing Workshop. However, it still needs to be in today's world of education and writing instruction, so I'm glad I'm seeing here on Edutopia. Thanks David.

I've been studying Writing instruction for a while now..starting way back with Donald Graves and Donald Murray, Ralph Fletcher, Atwell, Barry Lane...and now Kelly Gallagher, etc.. And although I've learned so much from the great thinkers of writing education, nothing has helped me more with teaching writing than "doing" writing. The flow of the first draft, the carving, the revision, the send off, the rejection, the rejection, the rejection, the rewrites,etc.. theres so much value and education in having a writing life.

There's certainly a difference between and teacher who teaches writing and a writer who teaches writing. But what about other subjects?

Mathematician teaching math?
Scientist teaching Science?
Historian teaching History?
Athlete teaching Gym?
Artist teaching art?
Musician teaching music?

How would education be different (better/worse) if it was based on apprenticeships? Big Picture Learning does exactly this. here's a Ted Talk with the co-founder Dennis Littkey.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UbpqVPtUIFQ

Cheers.
Gaetan

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

Hi Gaetan.

You raise a very interesting point. What if teachers were actually subject-matter specialists?

At TEAM Schools, the schools I work for, we've found that our strongest teachers in core content areas aren't necessarily specialists in their content area. (at least at the elementary and middle levels)
The best teachers in our experience are the ones with the best problem-solving skills. They can think critically about what they see going on in their classroom and figure out a course of action. They are extremely smart people who don't need the content expertise because they know how to learn it as they go.

When we get to high school, it's a different story. Our strongest high school teachers typically have very in-depth content knowledge. The state requires this here in NJ. With their deeper levels of subject matter expertise they can plan curriculum that challenges students and teaches them content skills they need to succeed in college and in life.

- michael

Tony de Araujo's picture
Tony de Araujo
Technical Instructor, Web Technologies, Author

Totally agree with the "reading alone isn't enough to strengthen your writing skills" bit. Writing requires constant practice. I believe the mental process of bringing an idea forward is in itself the essence of good writing and it is really difficult to just meditate on it without putting it in a written form.

denni_swill's picture

Writing every day is also useful. I used a technique called fast writing or USSW [like USSR uninterrupted sustained silent writing] for achieving in a few minutes of writing the composing, sharing and reviewing process on a range of ideas fiction and non-fiction. the type of response [genre] could vary. Everyone writes, including the teacher, sharing is optional. Potential topics are initially provided by me but later brainstormed with students. It also emphasised the oral connection. Often students wouldn't finish their stories in the allotted time but would continue to invent their responses as they shared.

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S. Guillory's picture

Mr. Cutler,
Two things resonated with me as I read this blog. First, and foremost, I believe in sharing my writing for my graduate classes and explain the frustration I sometimes have in having to rewrite not once or twice but sometimes five or six times with my students. The reason I do this "commiserating" with my students is because as seventh graders they complain about editing and rewriting. It is the part of the writing process I have had the most problems. Although the topic may not interest them, they are eager to assist Mrs. G. with her paper, and they also realize that I am not "the expert" in the classroom. This student-teacher collaboration fosters a community of respect and trust.

Second, I try to have my classes edit twice. The first time we engage in a whole class edit to see if their classmates are understanding and are on the right track. Depending on what type of paper and the topic, there are many ways I accomplish these tasks that I will not mention here. Other times I only use my stronger students to assist me with editing during our writing periods; however, I now have a few ideas which will encourage and empower my weaker students from your section on your writing workshop. Thank you for your wonderful ideas.

Finally, as this response is my first post to this site, please excuse any errors as I learn to navigate through.

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Brownbag Academics's picture
Brownbag Academics
author of Brownbag Academics blog

Hi! I completely agree with your number one! In my experience, we only get better as writers the more we write. Practice doesn't make perfect but it does make us considerably better. If we want our students to write, we have to write ourselves! We have to collaborate on their writing too.

Mackenzie
Brownbag Academics

AnokaEnglish's picture

Thanks for the post, David. I agree with your notion that teachers of writing need to write for and share with their students. The issue I struggle with is finding the time to craft something that I deem strong enough to pass muster. How do other writing teachers find the time to do this?

AnokaEnglish's picture

denni_swill, I'm interested in how you do this USSW, and with what grade level. Can you talk more about the set up of it? It sounds like something I'd like to try in my classroom.

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.
Facilitator

AnokaEnglish,

Time is always a problem. You have to ask your heart, "What's important to me?" And if writing is one of them, then you will find the time. I get up before my wife and kids almost every day to write, blog, comment on blogs, etc.... I write before my students show up in the morning during the school year and sometimes at lunch. When I was finishing my masters degree and publishing a book..I was up at least two hours before my family. I'm also way more productive in the morning than I am at night.

My reading and writing time are separate in my schedule, so I also have time during writing to write myself. This is one tool to I use to help set the environment at the beginning of the year. I sit and I write. If I hear chatter or talking, I say, "I'm writing and can't concentrate if you are talking." No lie. This works like a charm for the most part.

If i'm writing a kids book, I always share it with my class. Sometimes even the terrible first drafts right from my notebook. And I ask for specific advice. It's a good model for conferencing. I wouldn't worry about your writing being "good" enough to share. Remember, you are a community of writers helping each other write. Your students will respect you for asking them for advice on a piece and it will also make them feel more comfortable when you give them feedback.

I hope this Helps,
Gaetan

S. Guillory's picture

Mr. Cutler,
Two things resonated with me as I read this blog. First, and foremost, I believe in sharing my writing for my graduate classes and explain the frustration I sometimes have in having to rewrite not once or twice but sometimes five or six times with my students. The reason I do this "commiserating" with my students is because as seventh graders they complain about editing and rewriting. It is the part of the writing process I have had the most problems. Although the topic may not interest them, they are eager to assist Mrs. G. with her paper, and they also realize that I am not "the expert" in the classroom. This student-teacher collaboration fosters a community of respect and trust.

Second, I try to have my classes edit twice. The first time we engage in a whole class edit to see if their classmates are understanding and are on the right track. Depending on what type of paper and the topic, there are many ways I accomplish these tasks that I will not mention here. Other times I only use my stronger students to assist me with editing during our writing periods; however, I now have a few ideas which will encourage and empower my weaker students from your section on your writing workshop. Thank you for your wonderful ideas.

Finally, as this response is my first post to this site, please excuse any errors as I learn to navigate through.

(1)
denni_swill's picture

Writing every day is also useful. I used a technique called fast writing or USSW [like USSR uninterrupted sustained silent writing] for achieving in a few minutes of writing the composing, sharing and reviewing process on a range of ideas fiction and non-fiction. the type of response [genre] could vary. Everyone writes, including the teacher, sharing is optional. Potential topics are initially provided by me but later brainstormed with students. It also emphasised the oral connection. Often students wouldn't finish their stories in the allotted time but would continue to invent their responses as they shared.

(1)

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