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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Do You Write with Your Students?

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor

"Books will soon be obsolete in the schools. Our school system will be completely changed in 10 years." -- Thomas Edison, 1913

Sound familiar? Ninety-nine years later, we are hearing nearly verbatim today. Educational technology is a wonderful addition to learning, and to our world, but it does not and will not replace the process of learning or the planning of teaching.

Technology will also never replace the need to be literate. Students will always need to be able to read and write. And it's essential that they are able to do both incredibly well.

How do we prepare our students for the critical literacy skills required in today's world? Although there's so much to say about this matter, there's one key aspect of it that's been close to my heart since I attended a National Writing Project workshop more than a dozen years ago:

To help our students become writers, we need to write side by side with them.

In our classrooms, as students are scratching away with their pencils brainstorming ideas, drafting on the computer, thumbing through a thesaurus, or reading a section of their essay aloud to a classmate, we need to be willing to do the same. We need to be willing to participate in writer's workshop with the children we teach. This sends an invaluable message to the young writers in the room. It says this:

I struggle too. I get tongue-tied and run out of things to say. I repeat myself and I forget words that I know I've used in the past. I sometimes change my mind halfway through a page, or even two, and want to start over with a new topic. Writing isn't always so easy!

Let's face it, for most children and many adults, writing can make us feel vulnerable (does this make sense? will people understand? I'm not sure I spelled that correctly?) When we write with our students and share with them our uncertainties about word-choice, a topic, or organization, won't they be much more willing to do the same?

Here's a couple of instances where I shared with my eleventh-grade students during writer's workshop:

  • Mistakenly, I received an automated ticket in the mail for driving in the carpool lane without a passenger. The ticket was an error (since I'd been teaching at the time of the incident). I wrote a letter to the traffic court. The students advised me that my tone was too harsh (I was angry!) I revised.
  • A poem I had written years before about my mother. Since it hadn't been titled, I never felt it was finished, only abandoned. They suggested numerous titles and then voted as a class on the most fitting.

Reading with students is just as important. The message this sends? I like to read. I don't just tell you this and grade you on how much you read, I read side by side with you. You see my facial expressions as I struggle to understand something difficult and you see when I feel emotion at a sad or funny part. I am a reader, too.

When we model for students our love -- and struggles -- as readers and writers, they will follow. The more our students fall in love with writing and reading, the more of it they will do. And as we know, practice can make us better at just about anything.




Comments (29)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

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Corinne Ponder's picture
Corinne Ponder
Third grade teacher in Baltimore, MD

I completely agree with what you're saying. I have many students who are reluctant writers. For some reason, many students lack confidence in this area. I think it is extremely important that we go through the process right along with them. There are so many times when modeling writing that teachers spell everything perfectly, use perfect mechanics, and make their ideas flow effortlessly onto the page. Then we turn right around and force our students to go through the writing process when we rarely imitate any of the qualities of a good writer. I also like how you brought real life examples into the classroom. Students can tell when you practice what you preach!

Lulu Gunawan's picture
Lulu Gunawan
Fourth grade teacher from Jakarta, Indonesia

I really like what you shared with the students at the writer's workshop. Real life examples like those make students realize that writing skill is a necessity, not only in the classroom, but in real life situations. It is not an easy skill to master, but I believe that one will grow more in this skill when he/she uses and practices it frequently. I agree with you that teachers need to model the reading and writing processes, so students can see that teachers make mistakes and struggle in choosing the right wordings, too, and that despite all the challenges of reading and writing, we are not giving up easily.

Megan's picture
Megan
Special Education Teacher from Virginia

I completely agree with what you are saying and thinking. I am currently working on my masters degree and we just learned about how important it is to reflect with our students so that they see we care and we value them. I never thought of actually writing with them, but I see many values to this strategy. The students will then see that writing is what everyone does, not just students. However, my only question is (suggestions welcome!), as I am writing with the students, should I share with them what I have wrote and let them edit it and give me feedback so that they are not only seeing the importance of writing but also practicing editing and proofreading?

Rebecca Alber's picture
Rebecca Alber
Edutopia Consulting Online Editor
Blogger 2014

Hi Megan,

Absolutely! Inviting your students to make suggestions with your writing on word-choice, tone, and organization will inspire them to share more with you and other students when they are revising and editing.

One idea: You can project a chunk of your writing on the classroom screen and have the class make suggestions. Say you are struggling with a lead paragraph (maybe you think it's too vague, or too wordy), have them pair up and discuss then share out.

I've done this and immediately after, students began to volunteer a chunk of their own writing to be projected and revised by the whole class.

Thanks for asking and good luck with your program. : )

Rebecca

PS Editing is encouraged, too. Volunteer your final draft to any student in class who would like to give it a thorough proofreading. This shows them you respect their writer's and reader's "eye" and their opinions.

George Peternel's picture
George Peternel
Retired Principal

Setting an example only goes so far with many students and not very far at all with others. Remember when SSR was the flavor of the month? I remember seeing a student skimming through pictures in a book of illustrations during SSR and I asked him if the teacher approved of what he was doing. He replied "She doesn't care. She's reading a book herself so she's not paying much attention to what I'm reading."

Peter Pappas's picture
Peter Pappas
Exploring frontiers of teaching, jazz, yoga, Macs, film

I think reflection is key to learning. At my PD workshops I often invite participant to take a moment to reflect on what we've just done. Often times I will give them five minutes to either 1. discuss with a partner, 2. work alone to draw a diagram or sketch, or 3. work alone and do a free write.

Typically less than 1 in 6 will choose to write. It makes for some interesting follow up discussion on students and writing.

For more reflective prompts see my post: A Taxonomy of Reflection http://bit.ly/nErPmE

Megan's picture
Megan
Special Education Teacher from Virginia

Peter,
Thank you for responding. I actually like the idea of reflecting on things that we have just done. I may try that with my students for the last 5 minutes or so of class. It will get them writing as well as remind them that I care about what they think and feel. I think showing them the value of reflection will help build the relationships in the classroom. Not only am I having them reflect on the lesson but also getting them to write.

Megan's picture
Megan
Special Education Teacher from Virginia

George,
I never thought of that. I do remember SSR and I was one of those students that didn't take it seriously becuase my teacher was either on her computer or reading a book herself.
This is a good perspective to keep in mind when writing with your students. I think that as teachers we need to still continue to move around the room and monitor the students as we are writing. If there are students that are getting off task, we need to address those students and keep them writing.
Sooner or later, if the strategy of writing with our students continues, students will see that this time is just as serious as a test.

Megan's picture
Megan
Special Education Teacher from Virginia

Rebecca,

Thanks for the suggestions. My students struggle so much with writing and I am always up for suggestions on how to get them involved and willing to write. I give them practice paragraphs, essays and sentences to work on editing but I feel like they do not take it seriously. So maybe if I begin writing with them and allow them to see that I too make mistakes and need help with my writing, they will benefit from it.
I also love the idea of having a student edit my final draft of a writing. Like you said, it will show my students that I respect them. Respect is such a huge issue in my classroom and school that I think having the students believe that we respect them will really help!.

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