Friday, August 1, 2014

On Teaching Writing

We need to be writing in front of our students.  It’s important for kids to see teachers struggle with writing…because writing is a struggle.                             ~~Kelly Gallagher

            I am inspired. Excited. Energized. Enthused. I am all of these and more. Why? Because I recently attended the NDCTE (North Dakota Council of Teachers of English) conference and heard the challenging words of Kelly Gallagher. For those of you who don’t know, Kelly Gallagher is like an English writing teacher guru. I wish I could convey all of the ideas he posited and the ideas his words generated in me, but I’m not that skilled of a wordsmith. Suffice it to say I will be using Kelly Gallagher material in my classroom this year.
            So what was so great about Gallagher? Well, to start with he’s a teacher in the classroom facing the same problems and issues I am. He’s honest about his struggles to stay motivated and be on his game. I can relate to that and appreciate his authenticity.
            Gallagher also does terrific things in his classroom when teaching writing. He emphasized mentoring students in writing and modeling the writing rather than assigning it. This validated my teaching style somewhat as I try to model writing a lot for my students.
            Another technique Gallagher uses that I’m going to incorporate this year is the use of mentor texts. Students don’t know how to write an argumentative paper? Then show them one and have them emulate that text—legally plagiarize the steps and style of that piece so they gain an understanding of the process needed to write a solid paper.
Photo courtesy of Writing Foundations
            Gallagher also put forth a convincing argument for thinking aloud as I model writing. Let kids hear the steps I go through as I compose so they get a better idea of how the process works. Use a mentor text to show the students how you would emulate the ideas and write your own piece. Why do this? So kids get an idea of the “how” behind writing. It’s easy to assign something to write but much harder to teach a student how to write.
            Modeling and conferring, according to Gallagher, make students better writers. Not grading. Spending an entire Saturday writing “frag” in the margins makes you a better copy editor, but it doesn’t make your kids better writers.
            Alert students that one draft isn’t a stopping point. It’s merely a starting point. The first draft is a “crapola” draft. It can only be improved upon and help kids strengthen their writing. If students ask how long a paper has to be, it’s a red flag that they haven’t seen enough models.
            Go through the model with students asking them what the writer did in specific parts. Ask how that helps the paper. Show students how to analyze the writing by talking through the process out loud.
            Beyond the helpful advice offered by Gallagher, he also gave some great ways to incorporate writing in the curriculum. Have students do a “Who Made That” paper, picking an object and researching in order to answer the question. Write about something you’ve witnessed or what happened on your birthday in history.
            The ideas and suggestions go on and on. I wish I could encapsulate the feeling and encouragement Gallagher left with me, but I can’t. Maybe I need a mentor text myself. Or maybe I just need a mentor…like Kelly Gallagher.

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