being a teacher, Literacy, writing

Some Rules We Need to Bend As Teachers of Writing

I have been thinking a lot about writing.  Call it that time of year, call it seeing a need, call it teaching middle schoolers who either seem to love writing or really really hate it.  But writing is definitely on my mind.  And it’s about time.

You see, I keep fighting with myself and my own expectation of what a teacher of writing looks like.  The poor English teacher hunched over essays, red pen in hand comes to mind, and yet the teachers of writing that I keep learning from, that I emulate are far from that.  They is so much more than a red pen.  Yet, the old expectations, the old rules, of what I should be continue to haunt the corners of mind, trying to sway me to be something I am not.  I cannot be alone fighting all of these expectations.  I cannot be the only one that feels we need to bend some rules.

Rule number 1:  The teacher must read every piece of writing a student creates.

Kelly Gallagher freed me when I heard him say that students must write more than we can read.  Until then I lugged the journals home every weekend.  I wrote back on every piece of writing.  I read and read all of their writing, eager with my comments.  Now I ask the students what they would like me to read.  I invite them to share their work with the expectation that they must share something and then I read, devour, and assess.  It has changed the amount of writing we do.

Rule number 2:  We must know the purpose of a writing conference beforehand.

I used to think that I had to have every conference pre-planned, that every child that met with me I was ready for.  Now students schedule conferences and I ask them what I can help them with.  They tell me what they need and together we look at their world.  The conversations have deepened and their independence as writers has increased.

Rule number 3:  We must publish all finished work.

As writers, we do this all of the time; write more than we publish, write more than what others see.  And yet, in our classrooms we are taught that writing is a social thing, that all writing must be shared with another person.  That it is not finished until it is shared.  However, writing is a personal thing and sometimes that thing we wrote does not need others’ eyes on it, instead it needs to be tucked away, finished but not for the world to see.

Rule number 4:  We must always write for an audience.

I love having authentic purpose, like we have right now, but I also believe in writing for yourself.  Writing for the teacher.  Writing just to write.  And that means that sometimes you have no idea who you are writing something for but just are writing.  That does not make it without purpose, it simply makes it private.

Rule number 5:  All finished pieces must be, well, finished.

How many things have I published on here that were far from perfect?  How many times has a piece only gotten better because others joined in and shared their thoughts?  We do not always have to see a story through to be done with it.  We do not have to write a whole piece to share.

Rule number 6:  We must edit for perfection.

As teachers, we can do great damage with our editing skills; we can edit out the very thing students are trying to protect.  So I have pulled back on what I edit, I ask students what they would like me to help them edit, and I ultimately put the responsibility for most editing back on them; we are not striving for a perfectly edited piece.  We are striving for a better piece.

Rule number 7:  We must have a peer editor.

The peer editor comes up as one of the most hated things my students do in writing.  Often they do not trust the person that is editing their work, or the process itself is not helpful.  Until we teach students to actually edit their own work, we cannot expect them to be able to edit each others.  Until students get to choose who sees their work, they will not trust us in their writing.  So give students the choice and the time to work with someone else, but do not force them to.  At least not every time.

Rule number 8:  Writing must be linear.

Too often we teach students to start at the beginning and “just” write a rough draft, yet often students cannot think of the beginning.  They then stare at the page for days.  But writing does not have to be linear.  Students can start at the end, they can start in the middle, they can start wherever they want, what matters is that they write.  What matters is that they start.

Rule number 9:  Writing must be instantaneous and constant.  

We forget that writing takes time.  That part of writing is thinking.  That part of writing is searching for inspiration.  My students ask for time to simply think, to look for inspiration.  To write a little bit and then be allowed to stop.  Sometimes silence is the biggest friend a writer can have.

Rule number 10:  The writing process is the same. 

If our goal is to create true writers, and not just teach the act of writing, then we must make room for individualization.  That means that students must have choice in how they write, where they write, and also for how long they write.  While students should be exposed to many different writing techniques, processes, and also have time to experiment with them, we need to be careful when we expect them to all follow the same process.  What we should be aiming for instead are students who discover who they are as writers and develop that path.  Not follow the one we have set out for them.

Rule number 11:  Good writers write like me.

I’ll admit it; I have a wonky writing process.  I often do not write until I have the very first line figured out, but once that happens I can write the whole piece or chapter in one sitting.  I cannot read mentor texts for inspiration because they seep into my writing in all of the worst ways.  I work best under pressure, and I must have absolute silence when I write.  This process is not taught in school, but was one that I discovered myself when I got older.  And it would be a horrible process to teach to others.  Yet, how often do we teach students to write a certain way because that is what good writers do?  Instead, we should be focusing our energy on student self-exploration as writers, to give them opportunities to figure out how they write best.  Ask them, give them ideas, give them time and then have them reflect; did that work for them?  Why or why not?  Let them discover their identities now so they can identify as writers, not as students trying to be writers.

I know there are more hidden rules that haunt my classroom.  I know there are more expectations that drive my instruction in all of the worst way.  I know I have so much work to do in how I teach the act of writing, in how my students become writers, but at least this is a start.  Which rules do you think we need to bend?

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.



10 thoughts on “Some Rules We Need to Bend As Teachers of Writing”

  1. I am so grateful that you feel this way and are not afraid to say it. The most recent change I have made is the editor. My students blog all the time. I cannot read and edit each piece and why should I? I am trying on a new attitude. I read and find one (at least) thing to appreciate about the writer. I either write a comment or say it out loud. Either way the student is praised. When I feel something glaring needs to be fixed, I discuss it privately with the student. Then I ask permission to share the learning with the class.
    I am finally realizing that everything a student writes is practice. And the more they practice, the better they get. Not every piece needs to be finished, published, or graded. I think I have found a like mind in you!

  2. What a helpful article! I’m just embarking on a second career in teaching and I feel so lucky to be hearing about your insights now before beginning! Thank you!

  3. I wish I could have read this years ago. But them maybe I would not have really understood it. It sure takes time to understand things. Thanks again for wonderful insights.

  4. I am always in awe that the concepts and ideas that are swimming around in my mind that are so hard to wrangle, you are able to grab hold of and present in an amazing way. You have such a gift!

    I agree with so many of the items that you have shared.. I took note on rule #3 and #5. Writers like Jeff Anderson, Aimee Buckner, Ralph Fletcher, Chris Tovani, and Elizabeth Hale have really helped me to shape my ideas of writing. They have helped me to see that we can treat writing like art. We can be in studio mode and play with writing like we would with clay or a sketch. I have also apprecitaed their takes on growing organic editing and revision lists, and noticing what is special about writing, and not so much focus on D.O.Ls or what needs to be fixed.

    Thanks for your words, they hit home at just the right time for me.

  5. Agreed. These are smart ideas about addressing writing with students.

    This one was different for me: Rule number 4: We must always write for an audience.
    I didn’t know that teachers thought that way. I’ve never taught writing that way. For instance, I would never assume that students wanted to share their journals. Interesting!

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