Student Engagement

Two Questions for Penny Kittle: On Teacher Burnout and Motivating Teenage Writers

January 9, 2013
Penny Kittle

Write Beside Them: Risk, Voice, and Clarity in High School Writing is a compelling and seminal work on the practicalities of teaching writing to high school English students from New Hampshire teacher and literacy/instructional coach Penny Kittle. You can also watch the speech she gave when that book earned her the 2009 NCTE Britton Award. I've used the book and accompanying DVD for three years now, and my English education pre-service teachers have called the unequivocally helpful text "warm, inspiring and intelligent," "100 % heart," and hailed the author as "a writer's teacher of writing."

During our last fall class, my English education majors identified the two most compelling questions that they wanted to ask Ms. Kittle after reading Writing Beside Them. Less than 24 hours later and with the same unmitigated honesty that characterizes her professional writing, Ms. Kittle answered us. See her response below. Her read-write-revise strategy is teaching gold! This exercise is now built into almost every lesson plan I've devised for this spring. Also, Kittle sometimes sends out photo tweets (@pennykittle on Twitter) of her doing this work in front of students.

Question #1

With so many papers to grade and respond to, how do you avoid burnout? We know that your classroom allows ample opportunities for students to give each other feedback, but the paper load for you must still be arduous, right?

Penny Kittle responds:

I don't believe there is a way to get past the paper load. It doesn't burn me out because I don't assign topics, so students submit very different products. I hate the monotony of dozens of papers on the same thing.

I am blessed to teach in a district with reasonable class sizes (24) and overall load on teachers (five classes -- blocks, every other day), so most of my colleagues have no more than 100 students at a time. Kelly Gallagher has 197 teenagers this year. I just can't imagine the grind of 42 per class and all of those papers. But one of the things Kelly says is that students need to write a lot more than we can grade or respond to in order to become better writers. (The same is true of reading.)

In my current unit with grades 10, 11 and 12 (Write Beside Them was written when I only taught seniors; they were mixed by ability, but not grade level, and now my classes are mixed by ability and grade level), we studied opinion pieces, editorials and written commentary. They developed drafts and then chose one to revise for a grade. If I had Kelly's class sizes, I wouldn't have read all five. With my smaller class sizes, I am able to read them all. Also, I just skim my students' writers' notebooks and provide only light (if any) responding.

As I said in the book, I read students' pieces all the time. All the time. While waiting to get my teeth cleaned this morning, waiting to get my hair cut, during lunch, sometimes on hall duty, etc. The more I read, the better I get at offering helpful feedback.

Question #2

How can we generate student excitement towards the writers' workshop? [Todd's note: Find more information on writers' workshop in Kittle's text, plus this summary on the topic by Corbett Harrison.]

Penny Kittle responds:

Students don't get excited over the writing workshop. They get excited when they have something to say in writing and when they are given conditions (time, response) that help them say it well.

Charlotte said to me yesterday in class, "Mrs. Kittle, will you give me a topic?"

I said, "No, because that's the hardest part of writing -- figuring out what you have to say to the world. If I tell you, all your investment in the writing disappears. You're doing it for me because I said so. After you find the topic you want to write, you will find the energy for rewriting that is essential to make you a better writer."

Charlotte spent about ten minutes rereading her notebook and she was off . . .

It is essential that we write in notebooks every day because that is where most find things to say. For that work, I bring in all kinds of things to prompt passion and energy. I post some of these quick write ideas on Twitter, by the way, @pennykittle.

There is one more point about notebooks -- what I didn't know when I wrote WBT. I have students revise their quick writing every day: about four minutes of quick writing and two minutes of rereading it and "making it better." Also, I revise in front of them every day. Students are more motivated to revise half a page or so of quick writing than if they had to tackle an entire paper. Understanding and implementing this approach has led to substantial leaps in writing quality over the last three years. I facilitate this quick read-write-revise exercise with grades 3-12 in my role as a literacy coach. You should try this!

Reading stunning writing motivates us to compose. I want to write like that, I think. Kelly Gallagher's great book, Write Like This, features mentor texts that model and inspire young writers. Also, I fill my classroom with rich texts, including many pieces composed by former students that showcase how interesting topics were derived from the ordinary (cleaning motel rooms is our text tomorrow). These also serve as exemplars of how to elevate prose with voice and sensory details, among other techniques.

Teenagers are filled with bravado and spunk. I certainly was. Their writing reflects that. Right now my students are in writing groups (I assign them in groups of three) and are sharing drafts of commentaries each day. The writer directs the reading using the NWP structure: bless, address or press. The writer says, for example, "Only say nice things about this; it is too fragile to take criticism." So students write "blessings" on Post-its and give them to the writer. Others say, "I can't figure out the ending, will you address your comments to that?" Or my brave ones (and they are increasing in number each day) say, "Press me. Whatever doesn't sound right or isn't working, bring it on." Peers are willing to say, "Wow, that sounds preachy. Why are you writing about the party? Why does it matter?"

Of course, students learn to talk about writing -- to ask good questions about content and intent -- by listening to how I talk to them, as Peter Johnston's Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children's Learning work makes clear. We give them the language for talking about writing in our teaching and in our conferences.

Don't forget that you are entering the most important work there is. You were made for this. It will challenge you every day, but you will rise, you will learn, you will improve, and you will change the world. I'm sure of it.

All the best,


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  • Student Engagement
  • Literacy
  • Teacher Wellness
  • English Language Arts
  • 9-12 High School

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