When I was pursuing my master’s degree, I found myself challenged and changed by amazing teachers who, above all else, value deep, lasting literacy. Success in the classroom will never be measured or known by standardized test performance. Teachers who spend their days in the classroom know this. Teachers who help students read more effectively are readers themselves. Teachers who help students become better writers, well, they put their own pens on paper. Reading. Writing. Words in motion. Life Change in the Classroom, and Beyond. What follows here explains a bit of my teaching philosophy…
Today, I am called an English teacher. In years gone by, my title would have been
“Language Arts teacher.”
When people find out I’m an English teacher, they often share a brief anecdote highlighting their supposed mediocrity in the subject matter during their school years, and I am often encouraged not to pay too much attention to their speech; presumably, they will be committing gauche and unforgivable communication errors in my presence. As much as they may prefer that I do not, I of course do pay attention to what people say, and how they say it. Significantly, I also pay attention to what people write, and how they write it. I accomplish this by reading. Were I an elementary teacher, a proper assumption regarding my work would include the notion that I of course have the responsibility of teaching young ones how to read and write. Oddly, very few folks would think that older students, high schoolers, would need the same instruction in the how-to’s of reading and writing. Nothing could be further from the truth. Highly skilled readers and eloquent writers do not magically appear out of a hat upon the successful completion of fourth grade. Elementary teachers face the challenges of instilling basic skills and knowledge into young children who learn how our English language works. When those children reach high school, the “art” in Language Arts begins.
We read what other people have written, and then, we enter into an on-going conversation about ideas that intrigue us, infuriate us, or in some fashion spark our interest. We experience language, either its power or its inanity, and we respond. Language is Man’s unique gift, and it is our responsibility and privilege to use language effectively – to enlighten, to persuade, to delight. As an English teacher, one who practices the ‘language arts,’ I know that modeling, instructing, and encouraging students to use language artfully and meaningfully to communicate significant ideas is not only my responsibility, it is my calling. Teaching students to use words well is no easy task. High school teachers rely on their elementary and middle school colleagues to teach students the foundational elements of language: the parts of speech, grammar concepts and writing. Students acquire rudimentary skills in sentence structure, paragraph writing, idea development and basic organizational methods. Drill and practice often seem reasonable because the “grammar stage” in student learning capitalizes on young children’s astonishing ability to absorb information. No wonder then, that children in the elementary grades can learn phonics, spelling, and English grammar rules so readily. Middle school students learn to develop their own ideas by beginning to analyze and explain the ideas that others have expressed. To do this effectively and well requires a deepening command of the English language, its parts, its rules, and its expression, both orally and in writing.
The high school teacher thus begins by reaping what other teachers have so often painstakingly sown in the fertile soil of young students who were eager to learn, and interested in the world around them. But reaping cannot be the only task of the high school teacher, for leaving a harvested field lying fallow only encourages weeds to grow. High school teachers can and should begin planting and preparing for a new harvest. Rudimentary skills lead the way to higher order thinking skills, which in turn can blossom into strong, meaningful writing and speech.
The four years that students spend in high school English classrooms must not be a frenzied chase to ‘cover standards’ via a repetitive process of read, discuss, and write, with only the texts changing and the activities remaining constant. Instead, teachers in an English department must plan and coordinate those four years of instruction so that when students graduate from high school, they have developed and strengthened skills acquired along the way, but more, they have matured into thoughtful writers who possess a clear understanding of the writing process, and express themselves in a distinct, clear, and memorable way.
In his useful and insightful book, Teaching Adolescent Writers, full-time English teacher and co-director of the South Basin Writing Project at California State University in Long Beach, CA, Kelly Gallagher explains the important distinction between pressured standards-based coverage of material and choosing to deliberately teach students who are writers: “Teaching writers means that we create extended writing time in our classes. I clearly understand the implications of this statement. If we create extended writing time to truly teach students how to write, doesn’t that mean that other parts of the curriculum will have to be sacrificed? In a word, yes… But consider the alternative: What good is a curriculum that is a mile wide and an inch deep?” (29) If we say that students must be able to communicate effectively via the written word, then we teachers must willingly invest meaningful time into the process of teaching them to be writers. Gallagher continues, “If good writing develops careful thinking and writing is the cornerstone of producing literate human beings – then don’t we have a responsibility that reaches far beyond simply covering content?” We meticulously select the best of the world’s literature for our students to read and proceed to help them become more skilled in analysis, interpretation and evaluation. In the same manner, then, we should plan a course of writing instruction that will develop students into thoughtful, original and confidently mature writers.
The best advice I ever received from a principal I admire greatly and credit for shaping my teaching philosophy said this: “We don’t teach history, or English or math or Biology – we teach boys and girls.” In the world of written composition the advice remains sound – we teach writers. If we want our students to be merely proficient, or if we shoot for the stars and desire that they be exceptional, then we must create opportunities for them to write – every day. Writing is a means of thinking and learning. In an excerpt from Writing Across the Curriculum, Maxwell, Allyn and Bacon point out that “writing serves many purposes: to inform, to entertain, to remember, to create, to understand.” Critical thinking, argument development, imaginative creativity – all of these are developed through writing. In A Writer Teaches Writing, Donald M. Murray, former Professor Emeritus of English at the University of New Hampshire, claims that “writing is not superficial to the intellectual life but central to it; writing is one of the most disciplined ways of making meaning and one of the most effective methods we can use to monitor our own thinking” (3). By making writing a central priority every day in the classroom, we emphasize the importance of learning and thinking. In her book The Reading/Writing Connection Carol Booth Olson points out that “writing is one of the most complex and challenging thinking experiences the teacher can provide” (189). When we provide writing opportunities, we are shaping thinkers. Instead of being information seekers only, students become critical analysts; instead of producing singular answers to simple questions, students engage in meaningful and ongoing dialogue in the world of ideas.
Thinking and writing are inextricably linked. Teachers do think. But are they writing? Murray’s book title convicts as it instructs: A Writer Teaches Writing. Call us Language Arts teachers, call us English teachers, call us masterful literary geniuses. But call us writers? Some of us may panic. I did just that when first confronted with such an obvious assertion as this: writers teach writing. If I am going to find success in my composition classroom, then I have to know what I’m talking about when I instruct students about this rhetorical strategy, that revision technique, or the intricacies of the writing process. And I will not know what I’m talking about unless I’ve experienced it. Writers teach writing. Teachers teach writers. As a teacher who is also a writer, I can model the process I’m trying to explain – showing students my drafting efforts and revisions. I can sit right beside them and respond to a prompt. I can write a lousy paragraph and pitch it – or fix it. I can sit, stumped for an idea, and talk to them about their frustrations when ideas are hard to come by. When I demand that students write, I can and should write too. Kelly Gallagher makes it obvious why this would be so: “Teachers better understand the writing task when they do it themselves. Writing done by the teacher drives better instruction.” And students clearly benefit: “Students see the teacher struggle with the complexity and chaos of writing. This helps dymystify the writing process. Students no longer maintain the false impression that good writing just flows at will.” (48)
Students will write effectively and meaningfully for a variety of purposes and with strong awareness of audience – this is a reasonably stated goal and sounds official and ‘standards-based.’ Here are a few more: Students will write to discover what they know, consider what they think, and express what they believe. Students will write within a community of writers, sharing ideas, offering feedback, evaluating progress. Students will learn process, modeled by an experienced writer, their teacher. Students will learn what it takes to be a good writer.
Skills. Practice. Desire. Process. Teacher modeling. Reading – in English! Insert smiley face here. Trying again. More modeling. Practice. Again. And again. Good writing. We know it when we read it. A good writer? We know one when we read good writing. We sense the ‘art’ in the language. I am a Language Arts teacher. I teach writers.