Write Beside Them: It’s a Wonderful Life

I began Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them, and even though I am posting at the Learners4Life wiki, I wanted to keep my own reading journal here.  In this chapter, I felt Kittle outlined some of her core beliefs:

  • Standardized testing does not rule how she teaches writing in her classroom.
  • The single greatest influence on a child’s learning is the effectiveness of a teacher.
  • We don’t tap into our students’ passions; therefore, they don’t care about what they write.
  • Students try to figure out what we want and deliver it — they believe there is a correct way to write.

In some ways I am fortunate that my school does not used standardized testing to dictate curriculum.  It is important for our students to do well on the SAT and AP tests, but we do not have to contend with testing requirements of NCLB as a private school.  I am, however, glad to see that Kittle, who does have to contend with standardized testing, doesn’t let tests determine all of her instructional decisions.  I would argue, however, that if a good teacher makes sound instructional decisions that truly teach her students what they need to know to be critical readers and effective writers, then the standardized test scores will follow.  I think perhaps Kittle included these thoughts to appeal to teachers who might be afraid to try her methods and are used to teaching to whatever test they have to worry about.

Kittle echoes research I have read elsewhere regarding the influence of a teacher in a student’s learning.  It is both empowering and daunting to know that teachers can have such an impact.  Teachers have a lot of responsibility, and I think sometimes we feel helpless in the face of all the problems our students have, testing, and other constraints.

Why aren’t students motivated?  Why won’t they revise?  How come after all the time I put into commenting on that paper, he just turns to the last page to find the grade?

If you ask them, they’ll tell you.  We aren’t tapping into their passions. (3)

I could have written the first three sentences.  In fact, I have often lamented about the fact that students don’t read my copious comments and focus on the grades.  My students are motivated, all right, but too often it’s a grade that motivated them instead of a desire to be a good writer or to learn.  In fact, one of the reasons I was attracted to this book is that I hoped I might be able to learn how to tap into my students’ passions so that grades will no longer be the motivator.

Kittle quotes the literacy biography of one of her former students — a man who entered university to major in writing:

My childhood love of books fizzled when I entered junior high — all of a sudden I was in an environment where I had hours and hours of required reading, so much homework about boring subjects that I had no time to read what I wanted to read.  With this went the writing — we never had “freewrite” time anymore, I always had to write what the teacher wanted, the “right” thing, what needed to be done for the grade.  Creativity was gone. (4)

His comments could have been written by any number of high school students who once loved school and enjoyed what they were learning only to discover at a certain point that they had to basically play a game — figure out what the teacher wants so she’ll give me an A.

I don’t want my students to feel that way.  I want them to enjoy writing, but also learn how to do it well at the same time.

I have created pages for each chapter and student focus in Kittle’s book over at the Learners4Life wiki.  It’s not too late to join us.  If you want to go ahead and start reading, like I did, feel free.  I have posted a tentative reading schedule that allows for members to obtain copies of Kittle’s book and still finish before school begins again.

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4 thoughts on “Write Beside Them: It’s a Wonderful Life

  1. Teachers are important—I won’t argue with that. But to say that “The single greatest influence on a child’s learning is the effectiveness of a teacher” is stretching the truth a bit, I think—especially when I read these observations from Dennis Fermoyle at From the Trenches of Public Ed:

    4. I believe the most important factor in determining a student's performance is effort and not ability. I believe that student's who care about their education and try hard end up doing well, while those who don't care and don't try do poorly.

    6. I believe that when education is a priority to the parents, the chances are good that the students will take their own education seriously. On the other hand, if parents don't make their kids' education a priority, the chances are that the kids won't either. (I recognize that there are exceptions to this, and that when parents care and the students don't, sometimes it is at least partially our fault.)

  2. To be fair to Ms. Kittle, I should provide her whole statement in context:

    In study after study when researchers took all of the factors that can impact student achievement — from parental income to school resources to parental support to per pupil spending in a school district — the factor that had a greater impact that all of the others was the effectiveness of the classroom teacher. (2-3)

    In Classroom Instruction That Works, Marzano, Pickering and Pollack cite research on p. 3 by William Sanders (Sanders and Horn, 1994; Wright, Horn, and Sanders, 1997), noting that

    The individual classroom teacher has even more of an effect on student achievement than originally thought. As a result of analyzing the achievement scores of more than 100,000 students across hundreds of schools, their conclusion was "The results of this study will document that the most important factor affecting student learning is the teacher. In addition, the results show wide variation in effectiveness among teachers. The immediate and clear implication of this finding is that seemingly more can be done to improve education by improving the effectiveness of teachers than by any other single factor. Effective teachers appear to be effective with students of all achievement levels, regardless of the level of heterogeneity in their classrooms. If the teacher is ineffective, students under the teacher's tutelage will show inadequate progress academically regardless of how similar or different they are regarding their academic achievement" (Wright et. al., 1997 p. 63).

  3. And even if those studies are incomplete or influenced by other unseen variables or… well, for whatever reason WRONG… it is still true that our own actions are often all we can control. Therefore, even if my interaction with a student is the least significant of all the factors that influence her education, I'm going to make that bit of influence as positive as I can.

  4. That's a good point, Clix. I am going to quote Ms. Kittle a bit out of context here. She actually said the following in response to receiving a copy of her former student's literacy biography, but it an appropriate answer when we feel frustrated about any aspect of our job, whether it's teaching Julius Caesar or feeling helpless in the face of working with a kid whose parents don't care: "I told him how hard it is for teachers to hang on to what they know is right about teaching when criticism comes from every corner and test scores get the most attention in town" (4).

    That's not to say I think CTG's observations are wrong — I don't think that parental influence or effort should be sneezed at. I simply wanted to explain where Kittle's observations regarding the influence of a teacher's instruction came from.

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