Writing Should be Taught and Caught

“In too many classrooms, we assign and assess writing without teaching the craft of it.” –Penny Kittle

The first time I heard about parallel structure, limiting one’s use of linking verbs, and different sentence types, I was only a couple months from earning an English B.A. from the University of Michigan. If not for one class with a graduate student named David West Brown (who went on to write the wonderfully practical In Other Words: Lessons on Grammar, Code-Switching, and Academic Writing), it is likely that I would have started my career as an English teacher without even basic knowledge of these three foundational writing concepts.

I share this fact not to disparage my schooling, as I got lucky in so many ways with the lessons I learned and the teachers I had. But it is remarkable that someone who took dozens of English classes from quality teachers had such gaps, and I think it illustrates a major issue with how we teach writing in this country. The fact of the matter is that we simply don’t teach much of what Penny Kittle calls the craft of writing. We talk about spelling, vocabulary, grammar, and, in the later grades, the essay form ad nauseam, but almost no one directly discusses what makes writing work. Rarely do teachers explain and explore what makes a transition jarring, why some words sound good and others don’t, how to cultivate a powerful voice, common reasons why sentences sound choppy, and what makes the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. sound like liquid silk. Continue reading “Writing Should be Taught and Caught”

How to Hold Writing Conferences When You Have 165 Students

Screen Shot 2017-08-02 at 11.04.15 AMThis is the third in my series of posts leading up to my NCTE Ignite Talk on how to be as effective and efficient as possible with feedback to student writing. If you want to read the first post on when teachers should provide feedback during the writing process and the second on how much feedback they should provide, please click on the links provided. 

Writing conferences with students lie at the heart of the writer’s workshop model and are advocated by nearly every writing teacher of note. They have found widespread usage in elementary classrooms, thanks in large part to the work of Lucy Calkins and the Columbia Teacher’s College, but the writing conference has struggled to find the same hold in many secondary classrooms. This is likely due to the increased logistical challenges that come with conferring with every student in a secondary class, and as a secondary teacher, I can attest that the logistics of that are daunting. Last year my classes averaged 33 (which is the new normal in a lot of districts). Multiply that by five sections and you get 165 students, which makes having substantive in-person conferences really hard. If I take only five minutes per conference and factor in one minute of transition time between each conference, the end result is almost 17 hours of total class time required each time that I conference, and that doesn’t even include prep time for the conferences.

Whenever faced with using that much class time, it is important to ask whether it is worth the time invested, and if so, how it can be done as efficiently and effectively as possible, so let’s begin. Continue reading “How to Hold Writing Conferences When You Have 165 Students”

Words Matter

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” -Mark Twain

Words are the molecules of language. They are small, complicated building blocks that come together to form something so complex that it feels like magic that it even exists in the first place. Despite this central role–and the fact that nearly every test and essay rubric specifically mentions word choice–words themselves often go completely ignored in classroom instruction, written off as merely a “stylistic” choice.

In fact, words are so overlooked that I don’t think I’ve ever seen a specific lesson on word choice. Sometimes teachers will mention strong or poor word choice in individual feedback to student writing or gush about word choice in stories or poems read in class, but that is the extent to which I’ve seen direct teaching of choosing words.

My theory for why teachers so often forget to discuss the words themselves is that there are no specific rules for choosing words in the way that there are for things like commas or colons. But just because no specific rules are scrawled in style manuals, doesn’t mean that students can’t learn to wield words better. A few years ago I began to realize that if I was going to grade students on word choice in their essays, standardized tests were going to score students on word choice, and the world was going to judge students on their word choice, that I needed to find a way to teach word choice. Continue reading “Words Matter”

Responding Smarter, Not Harder, to Student Writing #2: How Much Feedback Should Teachers Give on a Single Paper?

In the very first post of this blog, I discuss the event that led me to focus on writing instruction. To paraphrase, in the first month of my first year of teaching, I assigned an essay and then went about grading it the only way I knew how: I stayed up late to extensively correct every error and record every comment that crossed my mind. Doing this for all of the papers took me well over 30 hours, but I knew it was worth it because my personalized responses allowed me to connect with the students in a deeper way than I could during class. But when I handed back the papers, the vast majority of the students glanced through the essays, passing quickly over the comments I’d carefully crafted during late nights and early mornings, and then discarded the essays in the recycle bins or their binders with little more than a second thought. I knew in that moment that most of my lessons in those margins would go unlearned, and the next papers, which were filled with the same mistakes form the same students, confirmed that my 30 hour investment had led to minimal student gains at best.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I had been a victim of what Nancy Sommers refers to as “the unwritten canon” in her landmark 1982 essay “Responding to Student Writing”.  In this essay, she claims that there exists an “unwritten canon” passed from teacher to teacher about how we are supposed to respond to student writing. The chief rule at the heart of the canon is that teachers should “correct” each paper by weaving a large number of quick comments and fixes concerning every error and growth area they see through the double-spaced text and margins of student writing (see below).  Continue reading “Responding Smarter, Not Harder, to Student Writing #2: How Much Feedback Should Teachers Give on a Single Paper?”

How to Get Students to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love Writing


In an earlier post, I discussed why most students tend to not like writing. In short, it is generally because writing is so complex that it maxes out our attention and working memory. Our brains are highly suspicious of anything that hard, and so while writing (or doing any other intense mental activity for that matter) they frequently try to convince us that this is not fun or worth it. Veteran writers have the ability to push past the brain’s protests, but novices often struggle to move past the difficulty and discomfort, and thus that is what writing becomes for them.

The problem with this is that if students view writing as unpleasant, too much work, or not worth the energy, the odds are that they will not be willing to put in the effort to make significant gains. That is why my central objective the first week of class, long before I introduce the writing process or semicolons, is to try to get every student on the path to liking or at the very least not actively disliking writing. I have found that nearly any student can learn to love writing, and once they do the pace at which they grow increases exponentially. Continue reading “How to Get Students to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love Writing”

Responding Smarter, Not Harder, to Student Writing

Four years ago I did a math problem that changed my life. I was looking at the stacks of paper lording over my desk, and I began to wonder how much time I spent hunched over stacks like those with a pen in hand. To find the answer, I tracked my grading time for a month and came to an average of 10 hours per week, which falls nicely in the middle of the range given in the only modern study I know on the subject: an NCTE study from a decade ago that found most English teachers spend between 9-12 hours per week responding to student writing. I then multiplied my 10 hours by 36 weeks of school and then multiplied that by 35 years of teaching (the average length of a career), and the result was that over my career I was looking at approximately 12,600 hours of responding to student writing, which is the equivalent of working full time, 52 weeks a year, for six years.  

Continue reading “Responding Smarter, Not Harder, to Student Writing”