As staff developers, we’re driven by one overarching goal: to help teachers become better at teaching writing.
This goal animates our work in many ways. It’s why we’ve written multiple professional books, including the one we’ve co-authored, How to Become a Better Writing Teacher, which will be published by Heinemann this fall. It’s why we co-lead professional development, including a virtual multi-day event we’re doing with Heinemann Professional Learning this July. And it’s why, individually, and together, we visit schools and districts all over the world and work side-by-side with teachers and literacy coaches, helping them improve their practice.
This work has never been more vital. In the wake of the global pandemic, children need their teachers to be the best they can be to help them move past the recent disruptions to their educations—and thrive. Yet, at the same time, teachers everywhere are overwhelmed, and want support with rising to this challenging occasion.
Just like our work with students begins with noticing their existing strengths as writers so that we can build on them, when we visit schools, we look for what teachers already have going in their classrooms. These are some of the things we find are usually in place:
- Teachers embrace the workshop model for teaching writing, and each day, their children are writing memoirs, informational nonfiction books, poems, how-to books, fantasy stories, arguments, feature articles, books reviews, and much more.
- Teachers usually have writing curriculums, either commercial ones their schools have purchased, or ones their schools or districts have developed internally.
- Teachers are trying hard to meet the individual needs of their students by conducting daily 1:1 writing conferences and small group lessons with their students.
With these things already in place, what, then, is the journey forward for teachers? How do writing teachers become better writing teachers?
We suggest taking these two steps:
- Revisit the principles of teaching writing.
- Envision how to align the practice of teaching writing even further to these principles by taking concrete, practical actions.
To show you how these steps work, we’ll discuss one of the most important principles of teaching writing:
Student engagement is crucial for students to learn to write well.
And we’ll describe some of the actions we suggest teachers take to further align their day-to-day practice to this principle.
When students are engaged, they’re more likely to learn (Crouch and Cambourne, 2020). Writes Ellin Keene (2018), “We need to increase the amount of time kids spend deeply engaged because it proves intoxicating and has a real impact on whether children retain and reapply what they’ve learned.”
- Are totally engrossed in their work.
- Lose track of time because they are so “into” their writing.
- Can’t wait to write each day.
- Appear driven to write.
- Get into a “flow” where ideas come rapidly.
- Ask to sit where their “flow” can’t be interrupted.
- Are so excited about their writing they want to talk about it as they write.
- Want to talk about their writing at other times of the day besides writing workshop.
- Are disappointed when you tell them it’s time to stop writing.
- Can’t wait to “publish” (or share) what they’ve written.
Student engagement happens by design, because teachers make deliberate decisions that lead to engagement (Crouch and Cambourne, 2020). Writes Cornelius Minor (2019), “A kid can’t be successful in my classroom if I have not created the opportunities for that child to be successful.”
When our work with teachers is focused on student engagement, we discuss kinds of actions they can take and the teaching they can do that will lead to more engagement:
- Since choice and engagement are linked, giving students the opportunity to make the same kinds of choices experienced writers make, such as choice of topic, is critical. However, giving students the opportunity to choose topics doesn’t automatically mean that they know how to choose topics that will lead to engaging writing experiences (Fletcher, Johnston, Ray, 2008).
Action: Make sure that lessons about topic choice show not only what writers do to come up with topics (for example, by showing students a “My Favorite topics” list), but also explain how writers come up with the ideas on these lists.
- Another way that choice and engagement are linked is though choice of genre (Glover, 2019). Students usually have favorite genres, and when they’re able to write in them, they are highly engaged.
Action: Examine your writing curriculums and assess how often they include units of study in which students can choose their own genres to write in (Matt calls these units “craft” and “process” studies).
- Students will be more engaged when you share mentor texts with them that reflect their identities and interests (Anderson, 2023; Bishop, 1990; Cherry Paul, 2021; Ebarvia, 2017), and they see that who they are and what they’re interested in are affirmed by these texts. Students are much more likely to take on the identify of being writers—and be engaged in the process of writing—when they are regularly exposed to writers that write about what matters to them.
Action: Examine your “stacks” of mentor texts though the lens of how they reflect students’ identities and interests and commit to making revisions to your stacks when you realize you could do a better job with this.
- Students will be more engaged when they get authentic responses to their writing from audiences that matter to them. After all, the primary reason why writers write is to communicate what they have to say with others, and when this something that students regularly do, they are more likely to be engaged in the process of writing.
Action: Examine your role as “first responder” to students’ writing when you meet with them in writing conferences. Do you take the time to respond to the content of student writing in these moments, and how do you respond?
Action: Include lessons in units on how to identify possible audiences for writing, and help students select audiences they want to share their writing with when they are finished composing it.
- Finally, another way to increase student engagement is by explicitly discussing engagement with them.
Action: Give lessons in which you talk with students about what engagement is, and the reasons why writers become engaged. In this way, students will be better equipped to recognize when they are engaged and when they aren’t, and have strategies for creating engaging writing experiences.
In our work with teachers, the engagement principle is just one of many principles we discuss. And just like we’ve described actions in this blog post that help teachers align the engagement principle with their teaching practice, we talk about many other actions teachers can take to further align their practice to the other principles.
We hope you’ll join us at our virtual multi-day event in July, where we’ll have the time to discuss these steps for becoming a better writing teacher in much more depth. And, when it comes out in the fall, we hope you’ll read How to Become a Better Writing Teacher!
Carl Anderson is an internationally recognized expert in writing instruction for grades K-8. He works as a consultant in schools and districts around the world. Carl is the bestselling author of A Teacher’s Guide to Writing Conferences and How’s It Going? A Practical Guide to Conferring with Student Writers.
Matt Glover has been a teacher, principal, author, and consultant for over 30 years. His latest book is Craft and Process Studies: Units that Provide Writers with Choice of Genre. He is the coauthor with Kathy Collins of I Am Reading, the author of Engaging Young Writers, coauthor with Mary Alice Berry of Projecting Possibilities for Writers, and coauthor with Katie Wood Ray of Already Ready and Watch Katie and Matt…Sit Down and Teach Up, a video-enhanced ebook that combines video and text to examine conferring with young writers. Along with Ellin Keene, Matt is the coeditor of The Teacher You Want to Be: Essays about Children, Learning, and Teaching. An internationally known literacy consultant, Matt frequently speaks on topics related to nurturing writers including engagement, choice, conferring, unit design, and oral language composition.
Anderson, Carl. 2022. A Teacher’s Guide to Mentor Texts K-5. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Anderson, Carl and Matt Glover. 2023. How to Become a Better Writing Teacher. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Bishop, Rudine Sims. 1990. “Mirrors, Windows and Sliding Glass Doors.” Perspectives, 1(3), pp ix – xi.
Cherry-Paul, Sonja. 2021. “We need books that center Black joy.” Chalkbeat, February 5. https://www.chalkbeat.org/2021/2/5/22267415/black-joy-books.
Crouch, Debra and Brian Cambourne. 2020. Made for Learning: How the Conditions of Learning Guide Teaching Decisions. Katonah, NH: Richard C. Owen Publishers, Inc.
Ebarvia, Tricia. 2017. “Tricia Ebarvia: How Inclusive Is Your Literacy Classroom Really?” Heinemann Blog, December 12. https://blog.heinemann.com/heinemann-fellow-tricia-ebavaria-inclusive-literacy-classroom-really.
Fletcher, Ralph, Peter Johnston and Katie Wood Ray. 2007. “Where Has All the Real Choice Gone? Revisiting an Essential Element of Writing Instruction.” NCTE Annual Convention, New York City.
Glover, Matt. 2019. Craft and Process Studies. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Keene, Ellin. 2018. Engaging Children: Igniting a Drive for Deeper Learning K-8. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Minor, Cornelius. 2018. We Got This. Equity, Access, and the Quest to Be Who Our Students
Need Us to Be. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.