Write Beside Them: This I Believe

The main message I took away from the second chapter of Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them is that writing teachers will not be effective unless they are also writers.  She says, “We don’t learn many things well just by following directions” (7-8).  However, it was this remark that struck a chord with me: “[T]he instruction has to come during the process of creating a piece, not in polishing the product, or nothing changes.  That’s a crucial error I was making for years” (8).  I think perhaps focusing on the product and not the process of creation may be why students flip to the last page to look at their grade.

Kittle compares learning to write to teaching her son to drive.  Parents wouldn’t send their sons and daughters out on road without being in the car with them, modeling first by “talking [them] through [our] decisions” (7).  The important thing to do is model writing: “If we don’t model smart thinking in writing, our students will write like kids who’ve read the driver’s manual but still hit the curve too fast and just about send us to the hospital” (8).

It’s interesting — I recall modeling writing poetry for my students years ago.  I slapped a poem in progress on the overhead and walked through developing it.  I remembered that it worked really well, too, and it’s a wonder I didn’t try other types of writing, too.

What Kittle learned are three important truths about teaching writing:

  1. Teachers needn’t be writers — “just someone trying to write” (9).  The process of modeling and thinking through a piece was the important part.  I would argue that Kittle was mistaken in not thinking of herself as a writer.  Our students don’t, either, and that’s why they think they’re no good at it.  One of the questions I often ask on a writing inventory I give my students is “Are you a writer?”  Almost none of them think of themselves as writers.  We make these arbitrary definitions of words like “writer”: writers are published and other people (important people who should know) consider them to be good.  Writers are people who use writing to communicate.  Period.  We can all consider ourselves writers.
  2. The books we read are great models of the product of writing, but it is the teacher’s job to model the process of writing.  We don’t see the effort that went into selecting the words and stringing them together.  We don’t see the painstaking process of editing.  All we see is a great piece of polished writing.  No wonder it looks daunting.
  3. We can learn how to teach writing by doing the writing ourselves.  Think how much easier it will be to plan for writing assignment instruction if we’ve already struggled through the assignment ourselves.

A few years back in order to better teach my students how to write a research paper, I wrote one myself.  It was probably the most effective thing I had ever done in terms of teaching the process; however, it might have been even more effective if the students could have seen me do it.  If they had seen me locating resources, taking notes, putting my notes in effective order, and outlining my ideas, it might have been even easier for them to figure out how to do it.  Well, there is always next year, and with my next class, I will write research paper beside them.

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4 thoughts on “Write Beside Them: This I Believe

  1. Your idea of "writing beside them" works in all areas of writing, too. I love writing poems with my classes and having the class help edit my amateurish creations. Any creative writing assignment is a good way for me to help work on my own voice and skills manipulating language.

    Sometimes I grab a student's topic for a paper and have the entire class help me formulate an introduction or find supporting details. Whatever I can do to write with the students and to encourage them to share is a good idea to me.

    With my explanations of the expectations, I composed a paper as a model for my students. This way the kids always have a paper to use as a model, too.

    Plus, I have a binder full of papers ranging from a 'D' to an 'A' grade. These also serve as models.

    Good luck with your papers!

  2. Is this one of those books that say don't give assignments? I wrote to you once about giving assignments and you wrote back wondering what I meant. It seems that this is another writer's workshop type of book that argues against assigning topics. I just want to know where a really good teacher (like you) stands on this.

  3. I haven't finished it yet, but from what I have read so far, if I understand you correctly, Penny Kittle gives assignments based on topics she has chosen and sometimes based on topics students have chosen. Is that what you mean by "giving assignments"? Who chooses the topics?

    My best advice regarding what it seems like is to read it and see what you think. I personally feel a mix of choosing topics and having students choose topics is good. It depends on what I am trying to accomplish, or, I should say, what I am trying to help my students accomplish.

  4. I am currently working on my alternative teacher certification for the Florida DOE, but I recently assisted fronting a writer's workshop at my more-or-less local library, and – like some of the students I subbed in language arts classes – you might be surprised how colored and shamefaced adults get when asked whether they are writers.

    From my experience in workshops in college, the biggest hurdle to seriously applying oneself to the process rather than the end-result is the belief in potential, or that at one point, you and Neil Gaiman might not have written so differently.

    As you wrote, there is something of misconception between the published work and the LOADS of unseen time drafting and revising. That's where the real writing is, and I think showing that good writing is more a matter of personal effort rather than divine endowment inspires confidence.

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