While writing programs (National Writing Project) or books (Write Beside Them) profoundly influence the way I approach writing, the real change occurs from the reflection and feedback provided by my students each year.
I always require students to compose some form of feedback for me: be it a short survey or a full-on portfolio. Often this reflection occurs at the end of the year, but this past semester I asked students to reflect after almost every piece they wrote.
Here are a few examples of the questions I ask:
How do you feel about this piece of work? What parts of it do you particularly like? Dislike? Why?
In what ways did your work meet the standards for this assignment?
What grade would you give it? Why?
One thing I would like to improve upon next time is...
Their responses are so valuable! Many former students’ voices stick with me to this day, and every year when I reflect I remember what they revealed to me. Through them, I have become a better teacher of writers.
For starters, students always voice their appreciation that my classroom is the first place they feel encouraged to express themselves in writing and also research and explore topics that are of interest to them. They are not just “writing history reports about the 1800s that no one cares about.”
One student lit up when he was given “permission” to research and write about his childhood love of the Pokémon franchise. He openly admitted that he was going to try and fit every single paper he wrote that year under the umbrella of that topic.
As I continue to teach writing, I recognize patterns in my students and how they respond to the class at the beginning of the year and as we come to a close.
One phrase in particular that I hear every year is: “I’m not a writer.”
Just this past year, one female student nearly had a panic attack when I told her the course she was taking was “pretty much all writing.” She was terrified and even joked about dropping the class.
Thankfully she didn't. Most of our conversations in class, though, began with her apologizing for asking for help or “bothering” me.
Some writers need reassurance, and I would often encourage her by saying, “I like helping students get better at writing -- it’s literally what I’m here to do.”
I met with her pretty regularly after that during class. I would pull up a chair at her table, sit next to her, and just talk about her writing and how she was progressing on a given piece.
Our conversations usually began with a warm smile from me and a simple question: “Any ideas?”
Usually she would say she didn’t know -- but I would always follow up with questions or prompt her with ideas. While she talked, I jotted down what she said. At the end, I slid the paper over to her like a secret note and said, “Here, this is what you told me. Write about that.”
The look on her face (and other students I have done that with) was priceless. She had never had a teacher sit down and just talk the ideas out of her -- recording them to show her how to go from the words in your head (or casually spoken) to the words on the page. And they were all her own words too, all I had done was write them out.
I don’t often appreciate experiences like this one until students share them with me in their reflections.
By asking students to discuss or write about their classroom experiences, I learn that it is our conversations or the ways I pay particular attention to them that make the greatest impact.
Based on their reflections, my students might not remember what mentor texts we looked at or what the specifics of the assignments were -- this year one student accused me of “sneaking lessons” about writing in on them -- but they do leave my class owning the fact that they are writers.
As one student put it: “I really like writing and I feel like my attitude toward writing totally shifted this year from ‘I have to write well for my grade’ to ‘I want to see what I can do’.”
Students notice when you write with them, they appreciate when you give them choices, and they listen when you engage with them honestly about the work it takes to be a writer.
I wouldn’t know any of this, of course, if I hadn’t asked them in the first place.
Erica Johnson teaches high school students in the rural community of Vilonia, located 50 miles outside of Arkansas’s capital. Predominantly working with AP and concurrent credit students, Erica enjoys helping students recognize their own voice and identity as writers. She is still working on her own writer’s voice on her blog Teacher Captain’s (B)log and searches for more ideas to bring to her students on Twitter @teachercap_e.