Most likely, at some point in our careers, we've all been guilty of using the Ass-Ass Method of teaching writing--assigning a paper then assessing it. Assigning and assessing, assigning and assessing, assigning and assessing. The Ass-Ass Method. (Thank you, Donalyn Miller, for giving this practice a name.) In this cycle, there is no place for actually teaching students how to write. We may tell students how we want them to write: use details to illuminate your point, transition smoothly between ideas, using specific and vivid language. But when--and how--do we teach this?
This is the writing teacher’s dilemma: HOW do we teach writing? WHAT do we teach? Think about the full range of writing teachers out there. Imagine the Kindergarten teacher who, by the end of this school year, has to get her students to the point that they can write a short opinion piece about a book, an informative piece about any topic, and a narrative piece with sequentially ordered events. Kindergarteners not only have to write a piece, but they must, with adult guidance, respond to peers' questions by adding detail to their work.
Now, go to the other end of the spectrum and consider the college level freshman composition teacher who has to help writers create meaningful work born from a wealth of reading, discussion, and life experience. This class will most certainly run the gamut of reading, research, and writing skills, and the teacher will most likely engage students in some form of workshop where students are giving critical feedback to each others' work and revising their own pieces based on this critical feedback.
A lot of teachers line up between the Kindergarten teacher and the Freshman Comp teacher. If they are not deeply entrenched in the Ass-Ass Method of teaching, they are asking themselves, "What do we teach and how do we teach it?" Where do you think the vast majority of these teachers turn to find a direction? (If, right now, you are running through a mental list of books by writing gurus, fabulous writing conferences that you've attended, or writing communities you belong to....you are most certainly a Writing Project teacher or something wonderfully similar. Either way, you are a minority and you need to know the truth: most writing teachers are not like you.)
So, if writing teachers aren't armed with the sage advice of Natalie Goldberg or Anne Lamott, the engaging tools of Barry Lane, Georgia Heard, or Ralph Fletcher, or the practical vision of Kelly Gallagher, where do they turn? Their curriculum.
God help us.
Our curriculums do a much better job of helping us teach reading. (If, right now, you are imagining your detailed curriculum that makes writing instruction crystal clear, you need to know the truth: most writing curriculums are not even close to yours.) If a student is struggling with reading comprehension, we can...I'm looking at my curriculum...help them with a few during reading strategies: making connections, visualizing, clarifying, etc. There are tools we can use to help them do this: think-marks and stickies to encourage active thinking while reading. If that doesn't work, we can...looking at my curriculum...help students tackle the unknown words in passage. To do this we can teach them how to use context clues. We can also help them develop their vocabulary by using word walls or Frayer Models. This is all in my curriculum.
If a student is struggling with writing, we can...looking at my curriculum...we can...still looking at my curriculum.... I have nothing. From my writing curriculum, I know what to assign. I know they need to use a writing process. I know a few grammar issues we need to deal with. Other than that, I have nothing that will help me teach an emerging writer how to improve. If our curriculum doesn't help, we turn to our textbooks. Generally these materials provide us with writing assignments and an assessment tool--usually a generalized, pre-fab scoring guide organized by traits. No wonder the Ass-Ass Method is so prevalent.
I am grateful for the Gateway Writing Project. The summer institute changed me. I read. I discussed. I WROTE! I began to articulate my own understanding of what makes good writing. I began to discover strategies that would help my student writers gain control of their work. When that summer was over, my GWP work didn't stop, and I continued to cultivate a deeper understanding of writing and writing instruction.
I wonder, in the busy world of a teacher, how many people read books about writing, attend writing marathons, or read a writing blog? It is Sunday night. There is a stack of papers waiting to be graded and a crew of kids who will cry foul if you fail to finish for a 2nd weekend in row. Digging into our practice takes time and, more importantly, passion. If either is missing, we might fall back into old habits supported by our curriculum and text books.
The Common Core is giving us a chance to change. Many districts are rethinking their curriculum. While the Common Core won't make it easy--they spend more time detailing WHAT we should write--there are references to writing qualities ("effective technique, relevant descriptive detail, and well structured event sequences") that, if deconstructed, could lead to powerful writing curricula. This work could go one of two ways. We could collectively roll up our sleeves and figure out this writing thing. Read, write, talk to each other. Make our writing curriculum a pathway for effective instruction. Or there's always the Ass-Ass Method of teaching. It's faster. It's easier. And grades are due.