Teaching Writing? (part 1)

I’m sitting on the back porch of a small lodge at the base of Mt Buller listening to the babbling sound of rushing water on the Delatite River. As I gaze up from this iPad I see many differing shades of green trees sprinkled with the odd yellow-leaved deciduous tree as it sheds it leaves. There is a small open fire about 50 metres away and the smoke gently wafts upwards in the still air.

I’m trying to describe a scene of a photo I’ve taken. You can be the judge of my description using the photo located at the bottom of the page.

The point of this post is to talk about a wondering I have about writing and in particular the writing we ask of our young people in schools. Student writing is one of the main improvement goals of our school and as such is in my thoughts over this mild Easter break.

When I hear teachers speak about student writing it’s often from the technical aspect “they need to improve their paragraphing” or “I’m tired of telling them to use capital letters in the correct places”. This may seem a criticism of teachers but it’s not intended to be one. Yes one needs technical accuracy to convey one’s messages.

Recently I participated in a teacher meeting talking about using the national test criteria for assessment (NAPLAN) to lead us forward in determining what to teach students next. This in many ways should thrill me for we have been implementing an evidenced based process for determining what students need to learn next over the past few years.

So what’s my wondering/s?

When I looked at the criteria it was very technical orientated (e.g. paragraphing, sentence structure). That’s the easy part, which I’m beginning to question.

What if writing is like painting where we use words to convey our emotions like painters use colours or images to express their thoughts.

Some may remember colour by number sheets (very technical or base level stuff) and please don’t think I’m discounting the technical skills in painting. But is that what we admire or seek to replicate in paintings?

I’m thinking not!

So what is my wondering?

Part of the answer to my first wondering from a brief review of the literature on writing was that we must help students seek a wider audience and authentic purpose for writing. Much has been written about these two points for if the audience is just teachers then perhaps it’s just the technical skills we value and that our teachers are nearly facilitating editors (correcting and providing technical feedback) – again do not take this as a criticism of teachers for editing is a skill and we need technical feedback.

So yes writing as a habit (daily) and the use of writers notebooks to collect our thoughts (pre writing phase) are necessary, so is learning the technical skills, developing a wider audience and using differing authentic purposes necessary but are they sufficient?

My wondering is about non-writing teachers teaching writing. When I say non writing teachers again this may be seen as a criticism, it’s not that teachers don’t write but generally it’s job related procedural – lesson and curriculum plans and summative – student reports. Teachers job related writing audience is small and selective.

So when do teachers write – write for wider audiences – write every day (non job related) and publish. The answer I fear is seldom ( I’m not counting some forms of social media here e.g. texting). Yet we ask them to teach young people to write (to experience the anguish about using the right word or the rereading-rewriting phase trying to get their message to say what they want).

Last year a teacher charged with researching what are some of our young people’s blockers and enhancers for writing facilitated a workshop where she got teachers to write. She gave them a writer’s notebook and set some engaging challenges. It’s where I heard teachers say “I can’t write”, “I’m not a writer” but engage in the task and laugh and smile at other teachers attempts in what she perhaps unintentionally created – a writers community. That may seem a harsh reflection but are we as teachers all to willingly want to get into the right and wrong of writing (technical) but not want to wallow in the pit of uncomfortableness trying to find our writers voice.

I know some of my posts seem procedural but occasionally I do get to share some deeper feelings and I hope this one strikes a chord with others.

So what is my wondering – can teachers who do not engage as writers on a regular basis teach writing (you see it’s not the same as reading where we engage silently with our thoughts in safer places).



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