I Teach Readers and Writers, Not Reading and Writing

by Matthew T. Meldrum

In the summer of 2012, I was at a crossroads in my teaching career. I was responsible to write curriculum, but when I looked over the template provided, I realized something wasn’t sitting right. I had just returned from the Heart of Texas Writing Project Summer Institute, the Austin site of the National Writing Project. Through that lens, I realized that the template curriculum included many texts, but little writing. The template course design seemed too passive. The problem I saw could be summed up in a single sentence:

I teach readers and writers, not reading and writing.

I was eager to give my students an active learning experience, but this mantra also kept me from bulldozing over my students’ motivation with a prescribed notion of what I thought was “College Reading and Writing.” I knew there is no such thing as “a 10th or 11th grade reader or writer.” Every student brings different abilities, needs, and interests to my class, and I wanted every student’s writing to be authentic. I thought I could design an experience that could be educational, challenging, and empowering for each of my students.

So, armed with my beliefs and the optimism that accompanies the beginning of the school year, I began. The ideas that guided my planning then, and are still key to my teaching today, are as follows:

  • Divide the year into genres, and divide the class day into predictable structures. Poetry, fiction, nonfiction, drama, literary nonfiction, research….my block schedule class of 90 minutes is divided each day into three segments. We begin with roughly 40 minutes of reading. Sometimes this is guided, sometimes it is independent, and sometimes it is Socratic discussion about the reading. This is followed by a 10-minute mini-lesson about grammar, vocabulary, or revision. The last 40 minutes is dedicated to writing workshop.
  • Homework can be meaningful. I expect students to write in their notebooks every day, whether we are in class or not, no exceptions. Students write about ideas they like, life events they observe, song lyrics, pictures, lists, diagrams, business plans, poems, prayers, letters, etc. They write drafts that synthesize ideas from their notebooks on separate sheets of paper.
  • Grade the writer’s notebook. I collect notebooks halfway through the unit when students have begun their drafts, and I grade them on volume, variety, thoughtfulness and specificity. I don’t read every notebook entry, but enough to get an impression. If a student questions his or her grade, I am open to negotiating if the argument has merit.
  • Grade as a help to the writer. I think most language arts teachers have encountered the dilemma of what and how to grade fairly. Far too often we grade that which is easily measurable to satisfy the demands of our system. I use a formative approach, taking as wide a view as possible on what the end product looks like. The grade students earn from me is far less significant than the way they might apply their knowledge: a grade attempts to quantify a student’s achievement at specific point in time, but application of knowledge might happen at a time outside of school or outside of my view.
  • Publishing is a celebration. The ritual of writing should be recognized with a publication party, maybe with light refreshments. Creative adults have celebrations for the release of a CD, a gallery showing, or a book signing. In my class, students celebrate with a gallery walk where they can read each other’s work and post comments with sticky notes in a semi-anonymous, low-anxiety kind of way. Ideally, it’s also an opportunity for parents, coaches, other teachers, or community members to be an authentic audience. Students write reflections on their writing process, and this seems to help them with their own understanding of who they are as writers.

To be sure, there are challenges. At first students couldn’t believe I expected them to write every day and would sometimes talk too much during their writing time. They were testing me. Eventually peer pressure and my consistency wore them down. Writing became something that was more than just a performance for a standardized test or an essay for their teacher to mark up. Because we were both new to this, I didn’t hold fast at first to a genre study, instead letting them write in a genre that they were comfortable with. Their writing wasn’t a perfect mirror of what we were reading as class, though they all had their own individual mentor texts to help them. My goal was simply to try to help them build their stamina as writers, and to help them redefine their view of what writing could look like in school.

But they wrote. All the time. In my class, at home, at 2 a.m. when they couldn’t sleep. Until it was almost as natural to them as thinking and talking.

Picture of a stone plaque that reads, "To imagine. To create. To learn."

Photo by Nicholas Raymond

I know they got better and better at writing, because I saw their notebook entries become longer, more detailed, more interesting. I heard them make on-topic suggestions to their peers during writing conferences. Later, when they would talk during writing time, it was a rehearsal for what they were trying to do. Grading their notebooks was for me the best way to know who they were as writers and as people, and I actually looked forward to the task.

Most of their education came from students being gently forced to spend time with their own hearts, minds and souls, and that was far more interesting than any text I could have assigned.

 

Matthew T. Meldrum  taught eleventh-grade English, AP and Academic, at James Bowie HS in Austin, TX in 2012-13. He has been teaching since 2003 and is now the HS Language Arts Curriculum Specialist for Austin Independent School District.

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7 thoughts on “I Teach Readers and Writers, Not Reading and Writing

    • Freedots,

      While I am not a parent (yet), I think one of the most profound things that a parent can do for a child, is to read to them. And read all kinds of books, with really interesting pictures and words. I would say books, magazines, graphic novels, album/CD liner notes, should be a part of your everyday furniture. I am sure you realize that you are his first teacher and he is watching and learning from you about how you make meaning from the world around you. I also think it is important to value his drawings and experiments with language.If he says something in funny, unusual, or childish way, celebrate it. Resist the urge to correct his grammar or speech; school, peer pressure, and experience will do that later. It is through encouragement and positive experiences around reading, writing, and drawing that will draw out his innate curiosity, and that will put him on the path to becoming a reader through his own volition. Let him follow his curiosity and encourage him in those things. As he matures, he will want to decode the puzzle of the written word to satisfy his curiosity. If you write in any way, even e-mails for work, show him what you are doing, maybe encourage him to imitate the way you write. Hope this helps.

  1. This is one of the most helpful resources regarding curriculum-building. I, too, teach block, and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out a satisfactory way to divide the categories. Do I teach grammar, literature, and writing in one day? Or do I pick a day of the week for each one? I’ve tried both. Your suggestion, though, about dividing the day into predictable structures is one I look forward to trying. Thank you!

    • Daisyfiller, I struggled with this for years. When I was in the classroom, I learned that more than anything, students crave predictability and structure. And grammar only real makes sense when you can apply it to what you are writing and/or reading, otherwise there isn’t really a place to put that highly technical knowledge of language and usage. It’s also important to keep in mind, that English teachers are often the gatekeepers to not only literature, but other kinds of real-world nonfiction as well. Best of luck.

  2. I am starting my first year teaching this year! 11th grade English. Woo! Exciting and scary. I love this idea! I believe writing is one of the most essential and overlooked areas of public education today. My question is this, how do you make sure every student is writing every day? I fear that this could be a lot to bite off but want my students to write as much as possible in my class. Is this a feasible model for a first year teacher or does this take some experience to master?

    • Cory, Congratulations! I will always remember teaching 11th grade as some of the best teaching I have ever done. It was certainly the most interesting and fun.
      To answer your question, I don’t think it is too hard to take on in your first year. In a way, it’s ideal because you won’t have anything to compare it to or anything to second-guess. I found that one of the scariest things about this kind of teaching is that I was on my own. It wasn’t like anything I had done before, and I couldn’t really rely on the well-meant advice of my colleagues.

      The secret to getting every student to write everyday is peer pressure. This is one of the most powerful forces human beings acquiesce to. If you set it up as a norm, even with fits and starts, your reluctant writers will eventually feel safe enough to simply write. It’s especially important that you start the year off like this, so that it is simply part of the routine of practice. Despite what they may say, students crave predictability and routine in class. That doesn’t mean it has to be boring, just that it is putting what you believe is best practice into the intentions of every day.

      You may have students who resist this, but you can have a one-on-one conference with them during writing workshop. Always give them as much choice as possible (usually we did a genre study, so I was only concerned that the final product resembled the genre, but they were free to write about whatever they wanted, even if they repeated the same concept).

      Also, expect a lot of talking at first; talk is rehearsal for writing.

      Your colleagues may or may not support you, but you already know that there is a serious imbalance between having kids read and write. No one questions the importance making kids learn to read, so why is writing not treated with the same weight?

      I hope you have a great year.

      • Thank you! With this emphasis on writing, what emphasis do you suggest for silent sustained reading in the class (if any)? I believe to become a better writer you must first become a well-versed reader. What strategies of SSR have you used to supplement this writing model?

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