9 Things I Have Learned About Teaching Writing

February 28, 2019
Aimee Ross

Credibility first: I have 27 years of experience as a high school English teacher and five as an adjunct for a local community college. I have taught 10th-grade English, journalism, 12th-grade English, creative writing, and Composition I and II. And I even advised the school newspaper for a decade.

I have taught hundreds, maybe thousands (wha-?), of teenagers how to put their thoughts into words on paper or a screen, and I’ve learned a few things along the way.

1. Writing should be a creative experience, not an activity.

This is why I allow music and earbuds and food. If students don’t have their own source of music, I’ll turn some on. I also encourage writing by hand and finding other places, beyond a desk or the classroom, to do it.

2. Show, don’t tell.

Model as much as possible (whether thinking, writing, reading, questioning, etc.). Give them templates for guidance. Provide sample writing to mimic. The more students practice writing with strong examples, the better they will get.

3. Most students will write off the top of their heads when drafting—no matter the task.

They will write without pre-writing or outlining, unless it’s a built-in step in the process that you teach and model. Even at the 12th-grade level, I have learned to assume that students have not been taught how to pre-write for ideas or outline their structure, topics, and support. And maybe they have been taught somewhere along the way, and maybe multiple times, but they claim they weren’t—we all know how that goes. When you build it into their assignment’s process, model it for them, and make them do it, at least then it has been organized in their minds, even if they neglect to look at it later when they start to draft. My bet is that if you do it for every writing assignment, whether answering questions on a short essay test or writing a three-page literary analysis, both will become habit. And that’s a good thing.

4. Practice what you are preaching.

I have found that I am a better teacher of writing if I’m doing it, too. And by that I mean writing on a regular basis. A couple of summers ago, I saw a call for submissions to an anthology entitled Beauty around the World, for which editors wanted to provide the pros and cons of different related issues. I emailed, requesting to write the pros for plastic surgery and how it boosts self-esteem. I had my own experience from which to draw, but this was to be an academic argument—exactly what I had been teaching for several years. Man, was it hard. The research involved was not bad, but the organizing of it was. I had the evidence necessary to prove my point, and I had the counter-argument, too, but I was unsure how to develop a thesis statement that would make my case for me. (I’m a fan of the three-prong thesis.) Once I saw how to split the evidence—statistics, doctors, patients’ experiences—everything fell into place. And so did my teaching.

5. Higher expectations elicit better writing.

Ever since I started writing and sharing alongside my students, I have seen improvement. Because I’m writing with them, I’m also counting on them to rise to the same challenge. It’s obvious then that I not only have high expectations of myself, but also of them. In addition, if students are not only impressed by who we are as their teachers, but also as writers, they will strive to achieve more. And because I’ve actually written a book and continue to write for myself on a regular basis, a fact not lost on my students, they actually try to do better on assignments. Think of it like this: If you were taking singing lessons from a musician you respected and admired, like Ricky Martin (personal bias), you’d try even harder to sing your best (while shaking your bon-bon), wouldn’t you?

6. But also, sometimes any writing is better than no writing.

Don’t get too stuck on what you think “works” or is the “correct” way to teach writing. Just a couple of months ago, Alec, a larger than life senior months away from graduation, cornered me quietly to tell me that he “can’t write,” so he wouldn’t do the essay. Instead of fighting him, I asked him to do a five-sentence outline (one sentence for each body paragraph) explaining the reading. And guess what? He did. And it was good. Perhaps I gave in too easily, but maybe I am familiar enough with his academic and behavioral background, as well as his future plans, to know what’s best. You know your students, so why enter a contest when you can compromise? It’s easier to find middle ground and work with them.

7. You just can’t neglect the mechanics of writing.

Specifically, grammar and punctuation. I came through The Ohio State University as an English education major in the late ’80s, early ’90s, when the trending philosophy was to just get students to write—the grammar and punctuation would naturally fall in place as writers matured. Well, I’m here to tell ya that’s sorta right and sorta wrong. Trust me when I say that in 27 years of teaching writing, I’ve tried everything: not teaching grammar, teaching grammar in isolation, teaching grammar inside writing assignments—you name it, I’ve tried it. I do think that as students mature as writers, basic grammar problems iron themselves out (some punctuation, most capitalization, and some sentence structure issues). But when it comes to more sophisticated (upper-level) writing, pronoun/antecedent agreement, dead construction, redundancy, parallelism, comma usage, and some subject-verb agreement issues must be flat-out taught, and within students’ own writing.

8. When providing feedback, less is more.

According to sciencemag.org, the brain cannot handle more than two complex tasks at a time. Once a colleague shared this with me, it not only changed how I taught, it changed how I graded. If I only focus on two suggestions at a time, I can offer more tailor-made and individualized instruction when there aren’t so many things to try and tackle all at once. If it brought relief to me as an instructor, imagine what it could do for reluctant writers who are used to getting back papers covered in comments and corrections. I’ve also applied it to my life at home, and you wouldn’t believe the difference it’s made with not only my teenaged, forgetful, ADD stepson, but also my middle-aged, forgetful, ADD husband.

9. The best kind of writing is real-world writing.

I try to provide multiple, authentic writing opportunities so that students can interact with material on a personal level and for a real purpose. Then, not only do they become engaged, but they also develop as learners. Authenticity breeds ownership and a better work ethic, and it can also help other writing troubles subside. Maybe we-in-the-know will write steps for how to carve a Halloween jack-o-lantern, and those-who-never-have will use our directions to try. Maybe we’ll analyze Shakespeare’s sonnets by deconstructing them and writing them as modern-day love letters to someone in our lives. Or maybe we’ll research and write problem-solution papers when the district decides to combine the junior high and high school, and then present our arguments to the administration over coffee and donuts. In any case, students have a stake in these assignments because they have personally engaged in them, and once they are “buying into” what we are doing, and they have connected, I get some pretty good writing. Score.

Posted By Aimee Ross | High School ELA Teacher

Aimee Ross is a nationally award-winning educator and writer who teaches secondary English at her high school alma mater in Loudonville, Ohio. Her first book, Permanent Marker: A Memoir (KiCam Projects), came out last March, and she has had numerous essays published online and in anthologies. Aimee is a former regional educator for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and teacher consultant for the National Writing Project at the local level. Learn more: https://theaimeeross.com/.

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