What the Morehead Writing Project has done for me…

The Morehead Writing Project has made me a much better writing teacher.  How? I no longer ASSIGN writing.  Days in my classroom no longer sound like this:

“Class –  Now that we have read “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,”  I want you to write a five paragraph literary letter with and introduction that has a  hook, and narrowed focus to the story, and end with a thesis statement.  Next, I want you to write three body paragraphs.  Each should contain a topic sentence, supporting textual evidence, and explanations of how that evidence supports each topic,  Finally, write a concluding paragraph that restates the thesis statement, states your personal opinion about the books, and ends with a final thought.  Don’t forget to use proper letter format, indent your paragraphs, and use proper capitalization, usage, punctuation, and spelling.  Get started.  This is due tomorrow.”

The writing teacher who simply assigns writing like this will invariable be disgusted with the final results and want to stab their eyes out with pencils.  Often, they will blame the students for their lack of effort, laziness, or poor writing skills.  I know this because early in my career, before I became part of the National Writing Project (originally in Arizona and now in Kentucky), I assigned writing in this way.  It was torture for students and for me.  To this day, I want to apologize to all students I “taught” the five five years during the first five years of my career.  I am sorry.  I failed you.

Today, I show my students how complete each skill I just rattled off in the second paragraph.  How do I show students how to do this?  I teach writing the same way any effective coach shows his or her team members how to successfully execute a play. I write before they do to provide models of what I expect, I plan my own writing while they plan their writing, I begin drafting – stopping and restarting frequently, and I revise my own writing in front of them and then ask them to do the same, glaring missteps and all.

Why do I choose to teach this way? It develops empathy for my students, who haven’t been writing as long as I have. It allows me to anticipate where they will struggle.  Because I encounter difficulties in putting the words together in front of them, they see how I recognize a problem and how I problem solve in order to overcome a writing hurdle when encountered. Sometimes they seem trash a first draft and start all over.

When I transform myself into a student in front of their eyes, it demystifies good writing for them.  I am no longer the know-it-all sage on the stage.  Instead, I am a fellow writer who, like them, struggles to make sense of content, organize my thoughts logically, express my meaning in clear cohesive sentences, pick just the right word for my intended meaning, find all my capitalization, usage, punctuation, and spelling errors before the FINAL draft is ready to be turned in.  Students get to see me, a 21 year veteran English teacher, as a real writer.  They see that, while I do have an English degree, I still have to struggle to turn ideas and words into clearly expressed paragraphs on the written page.  It shows them that good writing is not magically created the first time pencil is set to paper, but it is a process. It shows them that I am real and approachable.

This still shocks a lot of my students.  When they first enter my room, students have this perception that English teachers come out of the womb as naturally gifted writers,  and from the time they could put pen to paper, those words flawlessly appeared in perfect order expressing the intended meaning with astounding clarity.  What they don’t realize when they first enter my room, unless they have had another teacher who understand the writing project way of teaching, is that writing is a process. The Morehead Writing Project has helped me demystify this process for my students by completing those steps in front of them.   Because I write from scratch in front of them, students begin to understand ALL good writing is born of this process, painful as it often is.  I have revised this entry no less that 15 times now, and I still see imperfections. If I set it aside and look at it tomorrow before publishing, I will probably revise it another 15 times.  Seeing my own productive struggle teaches my own students how to do the same.  My hope is that regardless of their future endeavors, students will transfer this same type of determination to any future goals they set.  They get to see my excitement when the final product product I create actually expresses what I intended and they get to see live, firsthand, how hard work pays off.

MWP has taught me that my opinion about a student’s piece is and should be irrelevant IF students engage in the writing process.  In fact, that causes most of my teacher pleasers a good deal of consternation early in the year.  They excitedly shoot their hands into the air after quickly scribbling out a first draft.  When I approach, they hold up their paper up and proudly say, “Is this good?”  They have been taught somewhere along the line that their writing is only good when a teacher says it is.  This saddens me, partly because I know full and well that, often, student produced writing is not always read by the teachers who assign it.  Sometimes that is due to laziness on the part of a teacher, but more often it is just not humanly possible to read it all, thoughtfully assess it, provide thoughtful,  effective feedback, and reread the final results.  Because of this, it is imperative that we teach our students to effectively critique each others’ work.  This is far more effectively done in peer writing groups.  MWP has taught me the power of my peers, the positive impact of receiving honest feedback from my fellow writers.  My writing has improved substantially because of this.  Students who learn this begin to feel confident in their own ability to determine whether or not their writing is “good”.

I am, in short, a far better writing teacher because I write with my students. They frequently improve my writing with their thoughtful feedback, and when they practice that skill, they then look at their own writing with a keener eye.  MWP has taught me how to teach the writing process, and their is no better way to do this than to roll up your sleeves and write with your kids!

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