Teaching

Why Writing Instruction Should be like Coaching an Athlete

Growing up, my strength was not academia. I was an athlete not because I was tall and had great ball handling skills or could spike the ball at volleyball. I was a strong athlete because the way coaches taught me these skills, guided me, and helped me reflect and set goals. This made sense. Rote memorization, writing out spelling words 10 times each, and formats neve made sense. I believe that writing instruction should be coached like an athlete playing a sport.

Like a coach, I believe it is very important to provide students with strategic strategies the writer will be able to help process their own beliefs and experiences into their writing. There have been many mentors that have helped shape my beliefs about writing. Jennifer Serrevallo’s book, The Writing Strategies Book, not only provides teachers with the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ to teach writing, but it provides students with a concrete strategy to build strong, confident writing. Another influencer has been Jeff Anderson. Two of his books changed not only my teaching but have impacted my beliefs about teaching writing; 10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know and Mechanically Inclined. By giving students the opportunity to discover author’s craft through mentor texts and mentor sentences, students are able to unearth their own writing craft. Students need the chance to discover and explore writing through their reading mentors that will allow them to create their own style of writing.

Teaching writing is not an easy task, and I personally believe it is one of the most difficult subjects to teach as it is so subjective but scored so objectively. To help students feel safe with this deeply personal task, I believe a classroom must help establish a community of learners that is closely acquainted. Some ideas that I believe can help students feel safe in bringing to light individual author’s craft is technology, instructional delivery and environment. By providing students with a gradual release of responsibility structure with opportunities to conference, reflect and set goals students will feel not only heard but important. Flexible seating in the classroom will give every writer the warm environment that leads to open and safe writing. I also believe that helping students through the new sources for writing expression; blogging, book reviews, skyping will help students truly be prepared for their futures as writers.

As I began to sum up my ideals and beliefs about teaching writing, I can’t help but be grateful for all of the mentors that have helped shape this opinion. I also am grateful for the struggles I had academically because I know I would not be the teacher I am today without that struggle.

Big theoretical ideas and people that inform my teaching of writing

My theoretical ideas and mentors that have helped shape my personal belief about teaching writing have been formed by actual writing teachers in the trenches and/or children’s authors. I was not a strong writing student growing up. Nothing in school came easy to me, except for the sports that I played. I was able to become a strong athlete because I was able to work on a strategic goal or skill through great models like my coach and the other athletes around me. Once I was able to master that skill or technique it became a part of my repertoire, and my coach helped me with a new goal. This made sense to me because it broke down the large aspect of the game and made it into incremental techniques, goals, and plays that I was able to master through a gradual release. So when Jennifer Serrevallo came out with her The Writing Strategy Book, I was sold. She is one of those teachers that supported my already very strategic belief about learning. Although writing is very fluid and ever changing and very difficult to craft, she believes that writing is a continuous process of goal setting and re-teaching. She teaches with a strategy transfer model that allows teachers to help writers through their process of writing and becoming stronger writers. By meeting with students during a small group or one on one guided practice or conference, students can strategically focus on one area of need at a time. This strategic workshop style of teaching writing can help students that get overwhelmed by the big picture of writing, slow it down and focus on a piece at a time.

The workshop model or gradual release supports Ralph Fletcher’s ideas about writing being an individual process, and that there is not one set writing process. “That process should not be one-size fits all and should allow the writer to create his or her custom writing process through the workshop model.” (Fletcher, 2014.) Combine Fletcher’s ideals with Serrevallo’s writing goals and strategies, and you have a classroom of writers that is targeted, strategic and individualized. This helps students create their very own piece of art that they are proud of.

Continuing with the sports analogy, I believe in the importance of the instructional delivery or coaching. My coaches would allow me to watch game film from our games and professional games. This modeling from mentor athletes and peers allowed me to notice the skill being used, imitate it myself in practice and make innovative tweaks to fit my game style. Sports made sense to me, writing did not. So, when I started to read Jeff Anderson’s work from Mechanically Inclined and 10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know, it all finally came together. As a teacher, it is very important to fall back onto high interest authors that use the authentic writing craft. These mentor texts allow students to discover, imitate, and innovate their very own craft as I did on the volleyball, basketball and tennis courts. The only time students will innovate in their own writing is when they feel passionately about the craft of writing. This enthusiasm can only come from engagement within the process. By utilizing mentors in writing with authentic texts that students are already interested in, focus on discussions with their peers, and allowing for discovery gives students the opportunity to pioneer their own writing beliefs and craft. When students discover and explore in their own writing, it can become authentic and exciting. I, personally, want nothing more than to make writing something that excites my students and helps them overcome their own fears about writing.

Description of the physical classroom environment for teaching writing 

Since writing was something I was desperately scared of doing, I feel it is very important to incorporate a home feel in the classroom. The coziness should start with the relationships built among students all the way to their seating. The best part of basketball practice or volleyball practice was the comradery that was created among the team. We would cheer each other on during free throws, we would give each other pep talks when the game wasn’t going our way, and we would pat each other on the back when our shots seemed to never go in. I believe a classroom of writers should perform the same way. Collaboration among peers can help create this TEAM environment. The NTCE Professional Knowledge for the Teaching of Writing (2016) statement document talks about the importance of talking and discussion time with students in the writing classroom. Jeff Anderson also believes that writing can only happen when conversations occur. (Anderson, 2011). This can be done simply by creating groups of seating instead of the secluded individual desks. I believe that the physical classroom environment should allow for students to workshop through their process in “their” best working environment. A flexible seating classroom will allow students to be comfortable during the intimate writing process. When I say ‘flexible seating’ I am talking about giving students a say in how and where they write best. For example, I am currently writing on my couch with a laptop in my lap, covered in a cozy blanket while the music plays in the background. I have seen students sitting on yoga mats, rolling balls, and stools while in a dimmed room, as Mozart plays in the background. These students were all focused writers that felt at home with their environment and their writing.

Another important part of a writing classroom should involve technology. With all the new technology being utilized in the classroom; Smartboards, document cameras, laptops, ipads etc… Each of these innovations can be wonderful teaching tools for the writing classroom as they would allow teachers to showcase the mentor texts on a larger scale when modeling and introducing the focused author’s craft for whole class discovery. I also believe that I-pads or laptops would allow for a better writing experience as to allow students to utilize the internet for Skyping with published authors, writing blog posts with kidblog.com, and utilizing the online resources for read-alouds and book reviews. It is vital that teachers prepare our students for their futures, to help them learn to navigate the scary world of social media and technology references/research. Our students will be asked to use these later in their educational careers, so why not get them started in the safe environment of your classroom?

Incorporation of Modeling, Guided practice, and Independent practice 

Growing up, I was one of those students that struggled with everything academically. I remember being taken to a small closet sized classroom to review some of the most basic phonic skills, drilled on math facts, and repetitively writing my spelling words. None of this made me enthusiastic to learn, none of this helped me, and none of it prepared me academically. As an athlete, I remember being able to visualize the skill through models; coaches would bring out white boards and sketch, they would model themselves, or pull out game film to help me understand. We would be guided through the new plays step by step as we performed it slowly, we would scrimmage through the new plays and skills independently as the coach took note. I believe this is why I was a strong athlete. It fit my learning style. I wasn’t asked to memorize facts or skills, I was pushed in to explore, and I was engaged physically with the new ideas.

As a writing teacher, modeling should be done through mentors of authentic, high interest texts that allow students to become a writer like their mentors. This type of modeling should allow students to explore models, collect and discover the different structures, strategies, and skills from author’s these students look up to. Guided practice should be targeted, strategy focused instruction that allows each child to grow from where they are as writers. This is where the ‘real’ teaching happens with students; more mentor modeling, discussions with peers, and strategy practice. Through the visuals relied upon the mentors, the teacher conferences with students should be engaging and help students set their own goals to feel confident about their writing. This is where students get the opportunity to continuously improve through data driven decisions based on student writing and their personal goals. The independent practice is a very important part of the practice and should take up most of your class time, not just on the test (or ‘game day’). Marcia Tate’s Worksheets Don’t Grow Dendrites has a list of 20 engagement strategies to help students when learning. (Tate, 2014). The gradual release or I Do, We Do, You Do teaching strategy utilizes six of these engagement strategies; visuals, discussion, writing, reciprocal teaching, and collaborative work. Allowing students to work through their process, write and rewrite and discuss writing in a safe, comfortable environment helps to push students toward understanding their craft and passion that writing can provide.

A description of the students who will emerge from your classroom 

I did not become a writer until my adult years. I post many blogs about my teaching discoveries, struggles, and triumphs because I have been able to find my voice. I have been encouraged to let others hear my voice. I wish I would have had someone earlier in my life who believed and encouraged me to write more. In my classroom of writers, I believe that the students that will emerge will be passionate writers who believe in their writing and the importance of writing in general. I want these students to know that their passion, their failures, and their discoveries are important. In this classroom, students will know their voice is respected, and each of them will be able to articulate themselves through their writing. I also hope that the students will be comfortable with stepping outside of their comfort zone while using the strategies from their toolkit to create their piece of art.

In closing, writing is a very subjective process that can only be taught through exploration of mentor texts through a gradual release classroom process. As the teacher provides strategies, mentors, and models the student writer can create and innovate their own writing process that will give birth to a passionate love for writing and the power that writing can provide. Like an athlete, through strategic practice and reflected failures there can only come success.

 

 

 

References

Anderson, J. (2011). 10 things every writer needs to know. Portland, Me: Stenhouse Publishers.

Bernabei, G. S., & Hall, D. P. (2012). The story of my thinking: Expository writing activities for 13 teaching situations. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Fletcher, R. (2014). How writers work. Place of publication not identified: HarperCollins.

Professional Knowledge for the Teaching of Writing. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.ncte.org/positions/statements/teaching-writing

Serravallo, J. (2017). The writing strategies book: Your everything guide to developing skilled writers.

Tate, M. L. (2014). Reading & language arts worksheets don’t grow dendrites: 20 literacy strategies that engage the brain. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin a SAGE Company

 

 

 

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