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.
- The best teaching is conferring. While students are writing, I talk with each of them for about 3-5 minutes. I can track what they need and provide a teaching point or suggestion to help them–or maybe the entire class–using a mini-lesson.
- 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.
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.