Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Secret to Writing


One of my favorite subjects to teach is WRITING! I love helping the kids come up with ideas for stories, and you can always hear me say, “Hey, that would make a good writing project,” at least once in every conversation I have with my class, whether it be during math, social studies, or reading.

So, what if writing is the subject you like to teach least, or your kids walk in to your room saying they hate writing? Here’s a little secret. One of my favorite quotes to share when it comes to writing: 

“The only way to do great work is
to love what you do.” ~Steve Jobs

This is so true! Kids don’t like to write. Why? The #1 answer: “It’s too much work.” By the time they reach the intermediate grades, it’s become a tedious task and is no longer enjoyable. They have learned about editing and revising and the writing process. (This might be why you don’t like to teach it.) Who can blame them? They have spent countless hours editing and revising their work. When they try to turn it in, one of the first things they might hear is that they misspelled a word or they are missing a punctuation mark or (my favorite) “this doesn’t make sense” (I bet they don’t even know why it doesn’t make sense), and they need to go back and edit and revise. After all that, who would like writing?

Tip #1: Quit telling them to go back and “fix it” and put the “FUN” back into writing. Remember what Steve Jobs said, “The only way to do great work is to love what you do.” This is not to say that editing and revising and “fixing it” are not important because I completely believe that they are. (I’m going to edit and revise this as soon as I’m done typing it.) BUT, if a child doesn’t like writing to begin with, the teacher telling them to go back and do that tedious, time-consuming work surely isn’t going to help. Editing and revising isn’t the MOST important at this point. It makes sense, right?

In the first week of school, I get the kids to rate each school subject as to whether it’s “Boo!,” “Okay,” or “Awesome!,” and we make a graph on chart paper. Year after year after year, writing always gets “Boo!” from the majority.

Your first task as their teacher is to get that rating up. Get the students to LOVE writing! How? At the beginning of the year, don’t focus on the tedious editing and revising. Focus on the fun part, the creating. Since I love to write, for me it’s a little easier: If I’m excited, they’re excited. Also, be democratic. Let the kids decide what to write about. You can steer them in the right direction, but ultimately, it needs to be their decision. Give them ownership.

But, what if you don’t like to write? The answers are simple: Don’t do what you don’t like (about writing), and don’t be “THAT teacher” that nobody likes. When I first started teaching, the two subjects I disliked the most were writing and social studies. I was a science teacher and a reading teacher. Today, my two favorite subjects to teach are writing and social studies. Funny, right?

Sit down and ask yourself, “Why don’t I like writing?” (or another subject that you don’t like). When I did this for social studies, it turned out that it was because I didn’t like the way I was taught: “Open your books to chapter 4.3. Read that section and then answer the review questions at the end. I will collect your papers at the end of class.” (Can you hear him? The “Wonder Years” teacher with the monotonous tone? I can.) That is truly a boring activity, and when you are told to do it day in and day out, of course the whole subject becomes boring. I don’t want to be “THAT teacher.”

Then I thought, “Surely, I must have enjoyed social studies at some point in my life.” To this day, my favorite social studies/history teacher was a college professor who taught American History from the Civil War to the present. Our text book for the class was Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow, an historical fiction. He was also from Singapore. Point being, he took a subject he knew very little about and made it interesting. He could have told us to open our books to blah, blah, blah but he didn’t. He used discretion, but he also taught us what he believed was important about each event, whether it shone a positive or negative light on things. Best of all, he treated us as human beings, never as someone who couldn’t handle “the truth.” I want to be “THAT teacher.” With writing, first step, get them to love it. Then you can slowly add in the rest.

Now it’s your turn. You be “THAT teacher.” Decide what aspects you liked and didn't like about your past writing teachers and mix them to create YOU as a writing teacher. Remember that “Boo!” at the beginning of the year? Test it again at the middle and end of the year. If it goes up, you’re doing something right. If it stays the same, reflect and change YOU, because it’s not them.

Final Tips: Get excited. Use discretion. Treat the kids like writers. Read, read, read, read, read. If they do it, you do it. When it’s time to edit and revise, look for evidence that they did, DON’T nit-pick. Final projects should be crafty and creative, not “normal” looking. Don’t move on until they are ready (Remember, when it comes to the learning, it’s not about you, it’s about them.). Always and only praise for a job well done when it comes to writing, especially if you know writing isn’t their favorite and/or you saw them working really hard (even if it’s the worst thing you’ve ever read).

Most of what’s to come will be about ideas for writing projects, but I thought I needed to get the preliminaries in. Based on personal experience, I have come to find that most kids don’t like writing, and most teacher don’t like to teach it (Do you see a connection at all?), so I thought it needed to be addressed. Take my advice for what it’s worth…or not. The choice is yours.

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