What’s the secret to helping students write well? A passionate teacher? Trait-based instruction? Writing process? Writing workshop? Standards? Newer, better standards? Well, all of the above, of course–but none of the above unless we add the catalyst that releases the spring. We know what it is, but we are in denial. And our denial is hurting our writing instruction–perhaps fatally. Years ago, the great Donald Graves was asked what to do if we couldn’t manage to teach writing 45 minutes three times a week. Without hesitating for a second, he replied Don’t do it. His answer shocked people–but he was right. Good writing instruction comprises many factors–but the one without which it cannot succeed is the T-factor: time, time, time. Why? Because writing itself is highly complex (we’re not teaching one thing, but many things), because learning to write takes hours upon hours of practice and reflection, and because writing isn’t like cake baking. You don’t finish. It takes continuity from day to day.

What should it look like?

No doubt you have your own thoughts on this. But if I were to list a few things I’d look for in a successful writing classroom, I’d include these, at a minimum . . .

  • Ongoing discussion of writing topics
  • Modeling by the teacher
  • Use of literature to illustrate how and why writers do what they do
  • Mini-lessons targeted to helping writers solve problems: how to get started, write a good lead, spot filler, create stronger voice, find the “right” words, craft sentences, get creative with conventions, know when you’re finished (for now)
  • Opportunities to assess and discuss the work of other writers (not just peers, but professionals, too)
  • Time to share with partners or in writing circles
  • Time to revise

What does it look like?

Well, let’s just say I shared my list with a woman who currently teaches writing at middle school level–and she said (with a smile, I should add), “That’s utopia. You need to come into the real world.” I used to live in the real world–as a student. The teacher wrote the assignment on the board Friday at 2:30, and it was due the following Monday morning. We did have time for writing in those days–it was just all outside of the classroom walls. That’s one way to add time . . .

Other teachers are scrambling to find time in a world that has ever-expanding curriculum, paperwork, meetings, administrative responsibilities, and communication requirements–not to mention standards and the testing that accompanies acceptance of those standards. A colleague recently sat down with a woman who teaches writing in an upper elementary classroom. The teacher asked him specifically to work with her in analyzing her week to see if together they could find more time for teaching writing. This teacher believes in the words of Don Graves. She’s committed. But she is playing Wack-a-Mole with administrative requirements–and she’s getting tired. After reviewing her week, the teacher and my colleague/friend found 15 minutes on one day, and 20 minutes on another.

Could this work? This tiny time devoted to teaching writing? If we seriously define writing as thinking and ask students to demonstrate that thinking through informational and persuasive writing, then the answer is obviously no. Clearly, we need the people who write the standards to also help us figure out how to make time for writing. (Maybe we need standards for the writing classroom.)  Or wait–there is one alternative. We could also define writing as following a formula: one lead-in sentence followed by a main idea and three “details,” then a wrap-up sentence. You actually can teach that in 20 minutes. That’s precisely what makes formula so scary.

Can anything be done?

Yes–but it will take a great effort and a supreme communal will to change things. We must make the “no time for thinking” problem known to every person who has power over school schedules. Do this. Write letters. Speak up. Talk to parents. If we do not do this, we are cheating children of their right to use writing to share ideas and express their personal voice. Here are some other suggestions:

1. Analyze your own time in the classroom–minute by minute–for a week. We can’t manufacture time out of nothing, but now and then we can discover time we honestly didn’t know we had. Meet with colleagues and your school principal to see if together you can find another 90 minutes in your week. I know–it’s optimistic. But you won’t know until you look. Whatever you find, use it for writing.

2. Think about how you spend your writing time. Don’t squander it on formulas or drills. Instead, do things like this . . . Brainstorm topics. Model, model, model. Show students how to add detail to a bland sentence, how to transform a piece of awkward writing into something decipherable, how to begin with a lead that draws readers in, how to end a piece with something other than a dreary summary. Free write for 10 minutes on topics of students own choosing–then take 10 more to share with partners. Assess the work of others. One of the finest writing teachers I ever knew began each day by giving students a piece of writing to review (It was on the projector 3 minutes before class officially began, and everyone was early). “Tell me three things that are working and two you could improve,” she would tell them. In this way, they learned the secrets to writing a good argument, letter, advertisement, informational piece, and more. Give students a short passage from Dickens, Melville, Austen, Shakespeare–or your calculus, biology, or physics textbook. Ask them to rewrite it in words a third grader could understand.

3. Combine writing and reading. When you read aloud, you ARE teaching writing–especially if you ask students to reflect on and talk about or write about what they notice. As part of your writing instruction, have students search through literature on their own to find passages they think are striking or worthy of imitation. Have them look for original language, rich detail, unforgettable voice–or noteworthy conventions. In fact . . .

4. Teach conventions through literature. What if, instead of boring drills on, oh let’s say, the semicolon, you asked students to look for semicolons in their reading–and to explain why a writer had used them? Maybe they’d come up with a near-perfect example like these–we get two in a row– from The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (Little, Brown, 2011), a tale centered on shortstop Henry Scrimshander: “The glove seemed huge back then; now it fit him snugly, barely bigger than his left hand. He liked it that way; it helped him feel the ball” (p. 8). Figuring out what semicolons add to our understanding of this short passage is worth a month of drills.

5. Combine writing with content of all kinds: science, PE, art, music, philosophy, sociology, mathematics, geography, history. Ask students to interpret or summarize passages, to revise passages that aren’t perfectly clear, to write out discussion questions for one another, to identify questions they have, to write out the single most important thing they learned from reading, lectures, film, experiments, or projects–or what they still need to know. If we do this every day, we can provide many, many opportunities for students to write in the course of their daily lives.

6. Write small, write often. Writing doesn’t always have to take up 45 minutes. It can be ever so brief. Just like reading. Especially if we do it all the time–many times a day.

7. STOP ASSESSING EVERYTHING. It’s not productive, and it’s creating a trap from which we may have trouble escaping. Students need room to breathe. They need to write without thinking someone is standing behind them with a clipboard. If we’re going to write to learn, some of has to be muddled or incomplete. We need to see our thoughts in physical form right there in front of us in order to reflect and revise. That’s how writing works. Teachers need breathing room, too. Face it: If you have to assess everything students write, you won’t want them writing. But if they write for themselves–to learn, to clarify–you can ask them to do that all the time.

8. Do require some writing as homework. Homework has gotten a bad rap in recent years. It’s stressful, we’re told. No one’s there to help you. It’s too time consuming. It’s exhausting. All true. But when we learn under some duress, it forces us to get good at problem solving. In the Introduction to Shelf Life, author and editor Gary Paulsen talks about his career as a writer began. He found himself overwhelmed by the desire to write–but he had little experience. He’d been in the Army, and had worked as an electronics engineer. Then he got a job as a proofreader for a men’s magazine and became an apprentice to editors there: “These men gave me writing assignments, and in order to continue receiving their help, I had to write an article, a chapter of a book, or a short story every night, every single night, no exceptions, no excuses, for them to critique. If I missed a single day, they would no longer help me” (2003, Simon & Schuster, p. 5). Maybe apprenticeship–older students working with younger students–is a model worth a closer look.

True, not all students have ideal conditions at home. But somewhere out there for each of us is a basement, attic, spare room, quiet corner, garage, gym, friend’s house, coffee house where we can write for 15-20 minutes at the end of the day, capturing our own thoughts, reflections, observations. If we all did this, routinely–“no exceptions, no excuses”–just think how much better our writing would be at the end of a year. Just one year.

What’s at Stake

It’s not just about meeting standards. That’s only a tiny, tiny part of what writing is about. It’s about creating thinkers. People who can write or read contracts, enjoy a theater production–or create one, draft legislation, kick out ten emails before breakfast, write to a congressperson, protest in writing when the world isn’t going as it should, post a book or other product review on Amazon, write a proposal to gain funding for kids who aren’t learning to read, record history so people will know and remember how things were, write a poem or play or novel that will awaken our spirit. This is a lot to give up because we are just so busy.

Closing Thoughts

Sometimes we act as if standards are the answer. They’re not an answer to anything–that’s not their function. Standards provide us–at best–with a set of goals to aim for. And they don’t even ask us to aim all that high. If we don’t get serious about devoting real time to writing, it won’t make a particle of difference how illustrious our standards are.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Are you a fan of fables and folktales? If so, join us for a review of Grace Lin’s breathtakingly beautiful book, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.

Thank you for visiting– come often. Bring friends. And please remember: For the very BEST in trait-based professional development, please contact us: 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.