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April 1, 2018

Six Roadblocks to Writing Instruction—and How to Find Alternative Routes

If we can give our students more freedom to choose topics and find their writing style, they will thrive in the classroom—and beyond.
Instructional Strategies
"It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities."—J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Over 40 years ago, writer and teacher-educator Donald Murray (1968) suggested a radical, yet obvious challenge for teachers of writing: Study what real writers do in terms of process and craft, provide time in the classroom for students to engage in their own processes, create opportunities for teacher and peer response, and let student-writers choose their topics. With this simple concept, and the innovations of a slew other groundbreaking writing teachers and teacher-educators, the workshop model flourished in classrooms across the country.
The writer's workshop continues to gain philosophical support in schools because teachers who give time and choice in their classrooms see their students engaged as writers (Kissel, 2017). But threats have emerged in some writing classrooms in the form of state mandates, national standards, and high-stakes assessments that, when viewed narrowly, restrict the choices of writers and their teachers. Here are some roadblocks to autonomy and freedom in the writing classroom, and ways to maneuver around these threats into a more creative, flexible, and autonomous learning environment.

1. Lack of time and inflexible writing curricula.

It's probably no surprise that teachers often tell me the primary obstacle of writing instruction is lack of time. In a 2003 study, the National Commission on Writing in America's Schools and Colleges noted that schools devoted very little time to writing instruction—and little has changed in 15 years. A 2013 study of literacy undergraduate courses across three states found that colleges offer far more courses in preparing teachers to teach reading than courses do preparing teachers to teach writing (Brenner, 2013). In fact, of the course titles examined, 61 referred only to reading, 75 course titles included both reading and writing, and only five courses focused entirely on writing instruction. A looming gap exists in our teacher education programs that needs to be filled with more attention to teaching preservice teachers how to teach writing in their future classrooms (Myers et al., 2016).
Because of this lack of time, writing instruction is often pushed aside to prioritize the tested subjects of reading and mathematics. And many districts mandate fidelity to a set curriculum for writing instruction. Teachers feel the need to rely heavily on the school districts' prescribed writing curriculum. Yet prescribed lessons written by outsiders often fail to acknowledge the unique, nuanced ways writers interact with content. And while some students might absorb the lesson of the day and move forward with the content in their writing, others might need more time to let ideas marinate and play around with a craft, skill, or process before they are ready to move forward with something new.
This is why I suggest letting writers, not programs, guide instructional decision-making. If a pacing map or pre-made writing lessons guide instructional decision making, then our classrooms are led by programs rather than learners. Teachers must allow room for student writers to reframe their curricular decisions.
Prescribed curricula typically provide interesting lesson ideas to use in the classroom. However, as students craft text and teachers confer with them, future lessons should be adapted based on what writers need rather than the next prescribed lesson. For example, a teacher teaching an 8-week unit on informational reports may find herself teaching editing strategies in the middle of the sixth week, but realize that a few students still need specific revision lessons on "showing, not telling" before they should begin editing. A scripted program may tell her to move forward. But students may tell her, "Hold on." Teachers need the freedom to follow a curriculum that is more flexible and more student-driven than program-driven.
This does not mean teachers linger forever. They still need to set deadlines for published products and, as much as possible, push students to meet those deadlines. But there has to be flexibility in what is taught between the initial lesson of a genre study and the publication celebration.

2. One teacher plans writing lessons for an entire grade-level team.

I have been in schools where it's common practice for one grade-level teacher to plan math lessons, another to plan literacy lessons, a third to write social studies lessons, and a fourth to determine the science experiments. Divvying up lesson planning in this way divorces the plans from student work. This practice prevents teachers from modifying and differentiating lessons based on their observations and conversations, especially when engaging with student writers.
Collaboration among teachers during lesson planning brings multiple voices and varied ideas into lesson possibilities—a practice we should continue to cultivate. But we cannot plan lessons for students we do not teach; doing so means student voices are stripped from our instructional decision-making. To remedy this, teachers should bring collections of student writing, along with conference notes, to grade-level planning discussions and talk about writers—their goals, habits, and processes—rather than discussing which prescribed lesson should be taught next. Teachers who are most intimately engaged in students' work as writers should decide the next instructional moves for their students—with input and suggestions from a team of knowledgeable colleagues.

3. Dictating the topics students should write about.

To avoid students writing about uncomfortable topics for memoir or personal essays, teachers will sometimes prescribe topics. When we assign topics, we are doing the important work the writer should do for herself. We also silence the stories our writers feel compelled to tell.
My colleague Erin Miller, during a conference with a 5-year-old, learned about his family's business of dog fighting—an illegal act in his state, but part of the boy's life (Kissel & Miller, 2015). The topic made Erin uncomfortable, but she didn't censor it. She thought he needed to use writing as a way to work through his feelings about this practice. Because she didn't stop the boy from writing about his reality, the boy wrote frequently—sharing stories from his life. And, in turn, Erin learned important cultural practices of the community in which she taught.
When we ask students to write about topics related to their lives or interests, we won't always share those same experiences or interests. We may not agree with their position or argument. We may also need to establish some clear restrictions on topics: Writing about comic violence—OK. Writing about harming a classmate—not OK. Writing about romantic love—OK. Writing about explicit acts—not OK. Writing potty humor—okay. Writing offensive or racist jokes—not OK. But this list should be short. And we should consult our students and get their opinions on the list. Our aim is to be inclusive and not dissuade students from writing texts that give them energy as writers.
My daughter, a 1st grader last year, was given autonomy to write a multigenre book about an interest of hers for a publication her teacher called: A Passion Project. To my great horror, my daughter chose makeup as her topic. Across multiple pages, she wrote odes to lipsticks, how-tos about applying blush, and lists of her preferred beauty products. All of this was painstakingly illustrated and published with an author's page professing her love of makeup. And while I would prefer my daughter's passions to lean more towards brains than beauty, I'm glad she found a topic that ignited her writer's soul. She loves this 20-page book so much that it's the first thing she hands to visitors when they stay at our house.

4. Making the writing process too formulaic.

During my first year of teaching, I engaged in the following instructional malpractice: Monday, plan; Tuesday, draft; Wednesday, revise; Thursday, edit; and Friday, publish. I would place their "published" pieces in their take-home folders at the end of the week—never to see them again. Parents might have served as a secondary audience for the piece, whether the student wanted their parents to be the intended audience or not. I saw writing as a step-by-step procedure where one part of the process ends before the next begins. I expected all of my students to proceed through the "steps" at the same time—neglecting to allow them any choice in the process. My ignorance came from not being a writer myself. I didn't understand that writers work through their own processes, processes that are different for each writer and often for each new piece of writing.
I became the beneficiary of excellent professional development during my second year as a teacher. Over the course of the year, I learned about the instructional structure of Writer's Workshop and the importance of maintaining a writer's notebook. I learned that writers need to read and study mentor authors and the craft moves they make. I learned that all writers have their own writing process—and it changes from writer to writer, piece of writing to piece of writing.
I began to bring my writing life into my teaching life. I started to write in front of students to show them the process I went through to craft texts. As I wrote, I articulated my on-the-spot decision making. I might draft for a couple minutes, then add some missing details (revision), then draft some more, fix a quick spelling mistake (edit), draft some more, re-examine my beginning (revision), draft some more, and make a decision about using a dash, an ellipses, or a period (edit). I show writers that my process is messy, quirky, and non-linear.
I also rely on several teacher-authors who show me how to teach these processes to my student writers. Specifically, I consult Georgia Heard's book Revision Toolbox (Heinemann, 2014) to teach revision and Jeff Anderson's series of editing books, including Patterns of Power (Stenhouse, 2017), to teach editing. When we teach children different ways of drafting, planning, revising, editing, and publishing texts, we allow them to see the variety of choices they have when composing a text.

5. Teachers as the sole evaluators of student writing.

During my freshman year in college, I took an English composition class with a professor who required us to write weekly papers in response to the reading assignments. We received minimal feedback on our writing. Most of us received Cs on each paper, and when we compared notes with one another after class, we found no pattern to our professor's grading system. We suspected he stood at one end of his house and tossed the papers down the hall—giving As to the ones that flew furthest, Cs to those in the middle, and Fs to the ones that flopped at his feet.
Our professor was the sole evaluator of our work; he provided no clear expectations, and our writing was judged by a set of standards unknown to us. It was an unfair, unclear, unthoughtful teaching practice. And, as writers in his classroom, we resented this debasement of our hard work—and not getting a chance to advocate for ourselves.
Conversely, I try to make assessment a writer-driven, reflective practice. For every piece of writing students submit for grading, I ask them to attach a self-evaluation. For papers graded against a class-created rubric, students self-score the rubric and justify their reasoning through written reflection. Or I simply ask students to write a reflective letter to me; they explain the decisions they made as writers and offer a suggested grade for their work.
My purpose for grading this way is three-fold: (1) Students take responsibility for meeting—or not meeting—agreed-upon writing expectations, (2) Students engage in important reflective work needed to improve their practice, and (3) Students feel empowered by describing what they've learned as writers. Because of the subjectivity of writing—after all, effective writing is often in the eye of the beholder—it's important for students to self-evaluate. Everyone benefits by having a seat at the assessment table. Students benefit by having a voice in the process. Teachers benefit by better understanding the decisions students made as writers.

6. Students writing only for the grade.

During a conference with a student writer, my two favorite questions to ask are: Who are you writing this for? and Why are you writing it? I know I've done something wrong if the writer responds: I'm writing for you (the teacher); I want an A. I want students to write for broader audiences and purposes so that their writing reaches audiences outside the classroom walls.
In classrooms where teachers let writers choose their topic and target an audience beyond "the teacher," students have an urgent reason to craft engaging texts. In a college class I taught several years ago, an undergraduate student wrote a book for the child she gave up for adoption when she was 16. Across multiple pages and a variety of genres, she described the circumstances of her pregnancy, the child's birth, and her decision to give her baby to adoptive parents. She included poems describing her dreams for the baby's future. The student sent the book to the baby's adoptive parents so they, in turn, would give it to their daughter on her 18th birthday.
My student had a real purpose for writing and an audience who mattered to her. In her self-assessment of the project she wrote, "I don't care what grade I get on this project. The only thing I care about is my baby knowing the truth." When writers write for audiences and purposes bigger than school, they start to take pride in their work. They begin to see how their words are more powerful than whatever grade they earn in the class.

Driving Toward the Same Destination

Obstacles abound on the road traveled by writers and their writing teachers. But teachers and administrators can provide the necessary GPS support to avoid these traps. Writing instruction requires thoughtful, reflective practice, and writers need the time to develop and hone their craft. Teachers need the professional knowledge to guide writers in this complicated practice. And administrators need to envision a school environment that empowers teachers to engage in a student-driven writing curriculum. When we all drive in the same direction, eventually we all reach the same destination. And roadblocks no longer stand in our way.
References

Anderson, J. (2017). Patterns of power: Inviting young writers into the conventions of language. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Brenner, D. (2013). Teacher education and the reading-writing connection. In B. Miller, P. McCardle, & R. Long (Eds.), Teaching reading & writing: Improving instruction & student achievement. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.

Heard, G. (2014). The revision toolbox, second edition: Teaching techniques that work. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Kissel, B. (2017). When writers drive the workshop: Honoring young voices and bold choices. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Kissel, B., & Miller, E. (2015). Reclaiming power in the writer's workshop: Defending curricula, countering narratives, and changing identities in pre-kindergarten classrooms. The Reading Teacher, 69(1), 77–86.

Murray, D. (1968). A writer teaches writing: A practical method of teaching composition. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Myers, J., Scales, R., Grisham, D., Wolsey, T., Dismuke, S., Smetana, L., Yoder, K., Ikpeze, C., Ganske, K., & Martin, S. (2016). What about writing? A national exploratory study of writing instruction in teacher preparation programs. Literacy Research and Instruction, 55(4), 309–330.

National Commission on Writing in America's Schools and Colleges. (2003). The neglected "R": The need for a writing revolution. New York: College Board.

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