Recently I spent some time looking at new programs on the market to teach literacy. They all came from large, reputable companies and were designed to teach The Common Core State Standards.
While I saw a lot of good, current thinking in these programs, when I glanced at the writing sections within each, I sighed—deeply. In a nutshell, the writing in these programs calls for a lot of teacher-directed writing, emphasizing product over process, and steeped in the idea that the most important aspect of student writing, by far, is the ability to write with evidence from sources.
Now don’t get me wrong. I understand the importance of writing with evidence in our standards and love the challenge of helping young writers develop this skill. I embrace the three types of writing in The Common Core and have even written a book, The Writing Diner 2: Creating Active Thinkers for All Types of Writing, that is full of ideas and lessons to help teachers effectively teach opinion, informative, and narrative writing.
Yet, I feel truly saddened when I see student writing squeezed down to such a narrow focus. I am troubled by writing so structured it leaves little wiggle room for individuality, lessons so loaded with organizers they offer few opportunities for originality and a rigid approach to teaching writing that impedes creativity. I know some will argue that this is what students need in order to become competent writers with a solid grasp of structure. However, it leaves me asking one simple question: Where is the joy?
As a boy, my first grade teacher, Mrs. Lightner, helped instill a love of writing within me. I clearly remember grabbing my fat, red pencil and lined paper in her classroom and getting down to the wonderful business of writing. Writing was fun in room 24 of Pleasant Hill Elementary in Milford, Ohio. It was celebrated.
A dry, lock-step approach to teaching writing might produce what appear to be solid pieces of writing, but it won’t produce lifelong writers. It will not help a child triumph when writing the perfect sentence or rejoice when finding the just right word for a story. And, contrary to what some believe, it will not help a child become an active thinker while independently writing.
While I understand the importance of helping our students be “college and career ready,” I also keep in mind that they are kids—six, eight, ten years old, trying to tackle the complex task of writing. The decisions we make about how to teach writing will shape the way that they view the task of writing for their lifetimes. Do we make writing a boring slog of predetermined steps, or do we help students wrap themselves up in the beauty of words, build the excitement of completing a challenging piece, and celebrate the unique moments from each student as they write?
The point is, we can get students to write well-structured pieces, complete with text evidence and transitional phrases, but at the same time pieces that allow for students’ own distinctive voices to shine through, loud and clear.
So, as you teach the important elements of structure and including evidence from sources in writing, work hard to not forget about all aspects that make a truly good piece of writing. Help students enjoy wrapping themselves up in rich, descriptive language when writing that informational piece. Teach them to skillfully repeat a word or a phrase in opinion writing that will not only drive home a key point but will also create a poetic rhythm within a section of prose. Throw away the blackline master from time to time, give your students a blank page or screen, and then stand back and wait for the magic to happen. If the environment in the room is right, it will happen.
But most of all, make writing a joyful event in the school day. Help students understand the power of the written word. Let them know that you believe they do have something to say, and then teach them how to say it. Resist a narrow approach to teaching writing. Instead, embrace a wide view of what writing is. Show them that every piece of writing—opinion, informative, narrative—needs to say something. Let this start in Kindergarten and build throughout the years.
If we do this, students will be successful in learning to write from sources. They will be successful on important standardized assessment writing tasks. They will learn how to write and create and become deep thinkers. And maybe, just maybe, they will become lifelong writers.
What a joy that would be.
Tim Hargis is an academic support coach for the Kentwood Public Schools as well as an independent literacy consultant. He is the author of two books on teaching writing, The Writing Diner: Creating Active Thinkers in the Writing Classroom and The Writing Diner 2: Creating Active Thinkers for All Types of Writing as well as the children’s novel, Ol’ Man Caudill’s Hat. He has worked as a classroom teacher in the Grand Rapids Public Schools and as an adjunct professor of English at Grand Valley State University. Prior to teaching, Tim was a television news producer at WLWT-TV, the NBC affiliate in Cincinnati, Ohio. He holds degrees from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio and Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan. Tim lives with his wife and two daughters in Grand Rapids.