I knew it wasn’t working by the second week. I had problems I’ve never had before in a writing class. Glazed eyes. Silence I couldn’t actually outwait after I asked a question. Students on their phones, on their laptops. Missing assignments. Late work. And the absences. Sometimes half the class doesn’t show up.
It was an experiment, as my freshman comp classes usually are. But this time, it was an experiment that was far outside my comfort zone. And not just my comfort zone. My belief zone.
I don’t need to tell my readers what I believe when it comes to writing instruction, because all of you know. You have learned how to write and how to teach writing from the same teachers. You are steeped in the same beliefs, values, routines, and practices of writing workshop.
These are the voices we listen to, the touchstones we return to again and again to guide and push our thinking and our practices: Donald Graves, Don Murray, Penny Kittle, Nancie Atwell, Katie Wood Ray, Lucy Calkins, Ralph Fletcher.
I didn’t listen to any of them this semester.
Instead, I listened to colleagues who haven’t read these writers and teachers. I listened to the authors of textbooks about academic writing. I listened to professors who produce quantitative research about the needs of basic writers.
And I listened to my own internal doubting voice. The one who loves to whisper that I’m not doing it right. “You’re not teaching K-12 writing anymore,” she likes to point out. “You’re not doing these college students any favors if you let them write narratives and personal essays all semester. Their college professors don’t care how they feel, don’t care about their voices as writers. They just want them to be able to write a thesis statement and document their sources. Why aren’t you teaching them what they really need to know?”
And so I decided to experiment with teaching them what I’ve been told they really need to know. I even used a textbook for the first time in twenty years.
And I hate it. I really hate it.
I have one of the most interesting groups of students I’ve ever worked with, and I’m boring them—and myself—silly.
Have they learned something? Probably. Have they learned something of real value? Doubtful. They are doing assignments for me and for a grade. They are not writing, not as I define writing.
I had planned to see it through to the bitter end and chalk it up to experience. A failed experiment. We’ve pursued our study of academic writing for eleven weeks. Surely we can do it for another seven.
But this morning, I heard other voices.
Having facilitated a writing workshop for teachers just the day before on “creating the magic” – writing about what matters to you, tapping into your heart, your dreams, your struggles, your memories, making your writing authentic so you can help students do the same – I watched the snow, remembering Narnia.
Writing is the closest thing to magic that there is. As teachers we create the atmosphere for our writers. It’s one of excited expectancy, of energy, when young writers discover the power within them, learning how to harness words to impact readers. Writing, after all, is meant to be shared – it’s the connecting of human minds and hearts.
My students haven’t had that magical experience even once this semester.
And then I found these lines from Fun with Reading and Writing:
Then Lucy told us to take a little of Kathleen with us today. Can you think of one thing you can do on Monday? Can you think of something transformational that you can do? DO IT!! What would you say if you only had one year left? What would you do?
If you had just 3 months left, what would you do? What would you teach?
Have the courage to see the unbelievable potential in your students and push them to do even more!
If I had three months left to teach, would I limit my students to the moves of academic writing?
And finally, I visited Brian Kissel’s blog and found this:
Planning doesn’t begin with the standards or programs or curriculum maps
that chart the course for learning,
without consideration for the human beings,
writing away in the classroom.
Plans emerge from writers.
The writers are the curriculum.
And we need to remember this if we’re going to make a difference
in their writing lives.
My writers have not been my curriculum this semester. My curriculum was designed before I ever met them. My work has not made a difference in their writing lives.
These voices reminded me of what I know about writing and the teaching of writing and how I know it. They reminded me of the trust—in ourselves, in our students, in writing itself—that is necessary if we’re going to teach writing well. And they reminded me of what our students need and deserve.
I don’t know what can be done in seven weeks. I don’t know how feasible it is to jettison a failed experiment more than halfway through. I worry that my students will be even more confused than they probably already are. There’s still that voice in my head telling me it’s easier to stay the course, ride it out. And maybe it would be easier. But it’s surely not better.