Valuable as they are, the Standards cannot compensate for our lack of one thing: the biggest factor of them all—time. It is impossible to teach writing well without enough time. Time for students to choose topics, reflect on what they want to say, research those topics thoroughly, talk to someone, write, and revise. And on the flip side: time for teachers to coach students along the way, model what they do as they draft or revise, read from the best literature available, and eventually, respond thoughtfully and thoroughly to the writing of each and every student. Where is this time supposed to come from?
One of my good friends—an amazing teacher, who coincidentally taught both my own children—moved recently from teaching high school to teaching middle school. Her classes average 45 students each; some are bigger. Let’s do the math. If she teaches only four classes (and most of the time, she’ll teach more), that’s 180 students. If each student writes just two pages (short, when you consider that many middle school papers will involve research on complex topics), that’s 360 pages to review each time her students write. Now if she were reading a 360-page novel each week, that would be the proverbial piece of cake. Anyone could do it.
But no. We’re talking about 360 pages of careful, analytical reading: checking to see if the writer has a main idea, if it makes sense, if it is supported with detail or evidence, if the organizational flow is easy to follow, if words are used correctly and effectively, if the whole piece is readable, if conventions are both correct and rhetorically effective—and more. It’s working up the energy to remain fascinated even when the copy is less than fascinating because students deserve an engaged audience. It’s finding the just-right thing to say, those words that will give the writer needed encouragement, insight into his/her own talents, motivation to keep going, and a hint of where and how to begin revising or doing further research. Anyone who thinks this is easy has never tried it. Ask any non-teacher friend to pull two pages of text from ANY source—doesn’t have to be student writing (even the newspaper will do)—and read it in just this analytical way, commenting along the way. See how long it takes. Anything under six to ten minutes suggests the reader probably isn’t very involved. Teachers get involved. That’s their job.
And lest we forget, quick scores or grades and one-liner comments will not do. Most writing specialists tell us that we need to confer with students, talk with them one on one—and get them to talk about their writing. Don Graves taught us that nothing important happens in a writing conference until the writer speaks. I believe in conferring and have advocated it all my professional life. But let’s get serious for a moment. With 180 students, how often will a teacher find time to confer with everyone over a nine- or ten-week period of time?
Bring me my magic wand . . .
What do we do about this? Well, if only magic were real. If only pumpkins did turn into carriages, and 45-student classrooms turned into seminars of 12. Imagine the writers we could create.
Maybe we can’t wave magic wands, but we can increase awareness among policy makers (more of whom need to spend a day, preferably a week, in a writing classroom) that standards and requirements in general are not the whole answer. This is not to say that standards are not helpful; they provide logic, clarity, and specifics. They provide direction. But they are not enough. We see, most of us, where we need to go. It’s just so dang hard to get there because there are an awful lot of people in the life raft, and someone forgot to issue oars.
We need a different environment in which to teach. We need people—including legislators—to understand that teaching something as complex as writing takes significant time. If we are to help students meet the requirements of the standards, we need more than new curriculum. We need time in which to implement it. The biggest problem is not lack of knowledge about how good writing looks and sounds. The biggest problem is that our students never have enough in-class time to write, and increasingly exhausted teachers have minimal time to respond to each writer individually.
Imagine the time and effort it would take to help just ONE person become a really skilled writer. Once we get a handle on how difficult this is, we begin—just begin—to understand the realities for a teacher of 150 to 200 students. Smaller classes, quieter classrooms, time set aside for writing: That’s the Camelot that will only become a reality when education becomes a serious priority backed by serious funding. Perhaps one day we’ll have standards for classroom environments, and legislators will be the ones responsible for meeting them.
Meanwhile . . . can anything be done?
Yes, actually. Even in a world of 45-student classrooms, yes, we can do some things. Here are six suggestions, and we hope you will keep this conversation alive by offering others . . .
1. Don’t assess everything. Jeff says this all the time, and it makes so much sense. Some things are just for practice. We can offer comments—point out strengths or things for students to try to make a beginning effort more readable. But we don’t have to formally assess everything students write, or make every piece of writing count toward an end-of-term grade.
2. Don’t correct everything, either. Back in the day, teachers were expected to circle every misspelled word, correct every out-of-place or missing comma, rewrite ungrammatical sentences, and more. That’s not teaching; it’s editing. There’s no research to support the efficacy of this approach. In fact, the more we can encourage students to do their own editing, the closer we bring them to meeting the conventional requirements of the Common Core. (Yes, we DO need to teach editing; that’s another conversation.)
3. Encourage students to choose their own topics. This can be done within parameters. For example, we might ask students to choose a topic related to environmental studies or international relations or women’s rights. But assigning a broad category is very different from assigning a prompt. Broad topics invite students to use their own imaginations in coming up with a question of significance (one requirement of the Common Core), and in addition, dramatically raise the odds that student writers will find their topics interesting. It is very difficult to write well about a topic in which one has ZERO interest. Even professional writers struggle with that one. Self-selected topics lead to better writing, faster turnaround, and more engagement by reviewers (including teachers).
4. Ensure that writing happens everywhere. One of the best ways to stretch the time students devote to writing is to make sure they write about science, math, health issues, physical education and sports, social issues, philosophy, psychology—in short, everything. Such an approach aligns brilliantly with the Common Core, which emphasizes research and informational writing. Students do not have to write research reports in every subject area, however. Even if students were to write short paragraph opinion pieces, summaries, analyses, or predictions, the amount of time they would spend writing would increase exponentially. None of these would need to be graded.
5. Teach students to respond to one another’s writing. Writers need feedback—preferably immediate feedback. It’s hard to be very immediate with scores of students. But we can put students into small groups of 3 to 5, then have them read and comment on one another’s work; picture a round-robin sort of model, where each student comments, then passes the work on to another, and finally back to the original writer. We can teach them to do this well by modeling it ourselves—thereby creating whole classrooms of coaches. Through this model (perfected by my inspirational middle school teacher friend Barbara Andrews), we sharpen students’ awareness about what makes writing work by making them responsible for supporting one another, and coming up with comments that matter. “Good job, Ryan!” is a nice thing to say, but it’s exceedingly unhelpful because it doesn’t give the writer one clue about what to do next. It doesn’t even show that the coach read the piece. On the other hand, “Your lead got me excited, only the second paragraph seemed to go in a different direction” is very helpful indeed. There’s an art to commenting well. Let’s teach this to our students.
6. Involve parents. Many parents make superb writing coaches with just a little training and support. Parents can learn all about the six traits and the Common Core. They can work with checklists. And many have time to volunteer weekly or biweekly to meet with half a dozen or more young writers, listen, offer suggestions, answer questions, and brainstorm possibilities with each of those writers. My teacher friend (the one with the class load of 180) is trying this, with great success. She put together a workshop featuring traits and CCSS, as well as tips for offering useful comments and getting students to talk about their writing. Maybe this could happen at your school.
If you have secrets for magically creating time where none seems to exist, please share them with us here at Gurus. We’d like to expand everyone’s ability to deal effectively (and less stressfully) with the T-factor.
Coming up on Gurus . . .
We’ll explore the connections between the Common Core and the trait of Word Choice, taking a close look at ideas for helping students use words well, as well as literature that models clear language, descriptive detail, and sensory language—all elements of both the Common Core and six-trait writing. Thanks for stopping by, and please visit us again. Remember, for the BEST in workshops that combine standards, traits, process, and workshop, phone 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.