Monday, June 27, 2011

National Writing Project Day 1: A change in culture

After a first day jammed with many exercises, examples, immersion, and discussions of reading about writing, and discussions of our own writing I am left with an unaddressed thought: how many of my colleagues across the country believe that they cannot teach writing?  By that I mean they either feel they are unqualified or they feel they are handcuffed by the curriculum.

I was surprised to hear today (a few times) that the teaching of writing is almost absent in many classrooms because a secondary language arts curriculum is largely content-based (literature-based).  Colleagues shared common experiences that what writing instructors Don Murrary (The Essential Don Murrary), Ralph Fletcher (What a Writer Needs), and Donald Graves (Writing: Teachers and Children at Work) suggest isn't feasible in their content-based classrooms.

Namely, the use of the term the writing classroom has startled some...

The struggle I heard today went along the lines of I am trying to extrapolate something I can use--he doesn't speak about MY classroom experience.

Are our classrooms writing classrooms?  If we say that they are, then does that mean we are neglecting the teaching of the novel, grammar, vocabulary...if we cannot view our classrooms as writing classrooms then what kinds of classrooms are they?

A common sentiment among teachers in my experience is the belief that we teach process writing and that we are preparing the students for the next level.  Writing taught as the process approach as defined in these classrooms is often do x, y, and z in that order and hand it in...and be certain to adhere to the rubric which divides four or five categories into four quadrants labeled with a 1, 2, 3, and 4...4 being the best.  We highlight and make comments and check and circle and rubricise so that students pull out their calculators to figure our what a 16 out of 20 is.

The traditional state-nudged rubric does little to encourage the teaching of writing as suggested by Murray, Graves, and Fletcher.  As a matter of fact, the traditional rubric has choked out the writing classroom and teachers who see themselves as working in a writing classroom.

Whereas the mode of process writing offered by Murray assumes that the students have the time and the confident comfort to write-collect-connect-read, write-collect-connect-read, and write-collect-connect-read some more.

Perhaps our classrooms are not writing classrooms anymore than they are not reading classrooms or hematology labs, but I contend that they are and can be and should be writing classrooms irrespective of whether your curriculum is content-based or other.

I've said it before in other circumstances but the one resource which teachers are trusted the least with is time.  And when that happens all I can visualize is a teacher who might as well shove a wadded up rubric into his or her mouth because the art of what we can do is silenced.

Pleased perhaps that a rough draft may be stapled to a final draft, we operate as if we fear the time we do not have and so we adhere to prescriptive rubrics as our safe harbor.  They save time, and they carry the seal of approval of a lot of people who matter.  Better yet, they train our students to give us exactly what we want, and so they strive to write to fulfill the promise of a rubric.  Achieving a 4 puts one is such a better place, doesn't it?

A rubric is no more encouraging of process writing than a health-care plan encourages a diet.  They are both nice things to have, and they can be helpful for very specific functions. 

"Johnny, with a bit more revision and attention, you can earn a 4."

That's not the dialogue I imagine in a writing classroom.  I agree with my colleagues and our abject realizations.  Hopefully, through workshops such as the National Writing Project, others can speak and listen and read about these processes enough to extract the wadded up rubrics from our mouths and speak freely with students about writing--and teach them to speak freely about it...and not just sit and absorb the 3 the 4 the A the B.  Let's actually make the time to talk about the writing, but first let's actually make the time for people to write.

Before reacting, stop for a moment and consider the core of what I am suggesting, and then puzzle with me over why it seems so difficult to achieve.

1 comment:

  1. I have felt handcuffed to the curriculum, for sure. I also agree that rubrics are stifling.