This week we are joined by Carl Anderson and Matt Glover, two long time educators and authors dedicated to student writing. Carl and Matt explore what makes a strong writing teacher, and what we can glean from the writing process. They identity several principles and aligned actions that teachers can take to improve their practice.
If you enjoyed this conversation and want to learn more about improving your practice, sign up for Carl and Matt’s upcoming PD event “Becoming a Better Writing Teacher” on July 11-12, 2023, at Heinemann.com/PD
A transcript of this episode will be available soon.
Carl: Hi everyone, this is Carl Anderson. Matt, thanks so much for joining me today for this podcast.
Matt: No, I'm so glad to be here and especially to talk about some things that we care so deeply about. So today we want to think a little bit about some strategies for thinking about how to become a better writing teacher. And so just to start with, there are a couple of things just that we want to announce. Carl and I have been working on this book for a long time, How To Be a Better Writing Teacher, that'll be out in the end of October. We're so excited for this to be out. We think it's going to be tremendously helpful, especially since we get to go deeper into some ideas that we don't normally write or talk about. So we're really excited. We've turned the manuscript in and we're in the process of... We just shot video the last couple of days, and so we're moving along quickly with that.
But we're also excited looking forward to an online institute. It's our third one that we've done. It'll be July 11th and 12th, and you can get registration information at heinemann.com. On those two days, we're going to spend, again, thinking about strategies for being a better writing teacher. We're going to touch on some different things than we have in the past. There'll be some overlap, because we talk about key concepts that impact writers and impact teachers in lots of different areas. So there are always going to be some key things that overlap, but we'll be thinking about those in a different way. So our hope is that whether you've been with us before or not, that that institute will be beneficial.
Carl: I'm going to tell an origin story before we jump into other stuff. Just the origin story of our collaboration and the book that's coming out of it. And Matt, you and I have known each other for a long time. I think we first met in the Lakota district in Ohio when you were a principal there. But our collaboration really began this summer after the pandemic began. You called me and said, do you want to do a podcast? Do want to do a webinar on online conferring? And I said, sure. And so we did it and 500 teachers and coaches signed up. And so we figured let's keep doing some more webinars. And we did those webinars.
Matt: It sounds so much calmer and thoughtful the way you just described it. It was really a, "Carl, what is going on in the world here? We've got to figure something out. What are we going to do?" So much calm, so much calmer than I remember it.
Carl: Yeah, I was just so excited when you called. It was to talk about online confirming because there was stuff we were figuring out, and I knew a lot of teachers really needed some help figuring out. But was interesting after a couple of those webinars, I think I called you and we were talking and I said, "Well, Matt, why don't we turn this into a book?" We were having so much fun, our work for years, ever since Matt was a principal, ever since I became a staff developer, our work is all about how to help teachers become better writing teachers. And we complimented each other so well. I mean, Matt's primary experience as a teacher. My work in upper elementary and middle school as a teacher, Matt was a principal. I was a staff developer at the reading and writing project at Teachers College and et cetera, et cetera.
So after a couple of these webinars, we just started thinking, well, we're having so much fun doing this and working together. Let's turn this into a book. And we have been working on that since the fall of 2020. And we turned it in January. And as you said, we spent a couple days this week shooting two full days of video for the book. And we worked with kindergarten, first grade and second grade and fifth grade classes in Kansas City. It was such great fun. So anyway, that's such really the foundation of this book and this summer institute that we're doing.
Matt: And I think thing, when I think back on that, Carl, is that I think that it was good for us to be doing something together and to be trying to support teachers. But when I look back on it, I think of it as just as much of what I learned during those webinars and the fact of us doing planning those together. There are things that I've talked about before, but I'm always kind of questioning. And so we had so many good conversations about, okay, Carl, is this really... am I right on this? Am I thinking this through correctly? And I think you had that same thing where we were just over and over, looking at things philosophically about teaching writing in very similar ways, and at the same time, talking about them a little differently and different strategies, but coming from such a common philosophical base.
And so I look back on those webinars and just think about how much I learned, not even from doing the webinar, but from planning them with you and thinking through those ideas and more depth than I'm able to often in a school or in a workshop. It is just one of the most significant learning experiences for myself as a teacher.
Carl: And I would say the same exact thing, Matt. And at the same time that we started writing our book and we're writing our book, I was working on another book, a Teacher's Guide to Mentor Texts K through 5. And that book is significantly different because of our collaboration and the thinking we've done together about mentor texts. But our collaboration has impacted just about everything, every aspect of writing that I think about and talk about with teachers. So yeah, it's been such a wonderful learning experience and a wonderful collaboration between the two of us and one of the best things that's happened to me professionally in the last several years. So thank you for that, Matt.
Matt: I think we would've worked on it and written it together just for the fun of doing it and learning from each other. And then, oh yes, the book that goes out in the world, great, but we think we would've done it just for the learning experience with each other. So I just greatly appreciate that. So if we think about this, then this book is really about how to become a better writing teacher. It's not a writing workshop 101 book. It's not certainly for teachers just starting out, there's lots of helpful things in there, but we're very much handing the stance of, well, if you have a writing workshop in place, there are all sorts of challenges, all sorts of things that come up, all sorts of strategies that will help make your teaching both easier and more effective. So as we think about it, we think it's never been more important to be a really effective writing teacher, partially because teaching writing is challenging.
If you ask teachers where they feel most comfortable teaching, many of them feel comfortable teaching in math. Many of them teach feel comfortable teaching in reading, but writing is an area that sometimes people feel less comfortable with, and especially if we ask teachers who sees themselves as a reader versus who sees themselves as a writer. If I'm in a workshop and I ask those two questions, it's pretty striking. Often the difference between the number of teachers who see themselves as readers and the number of teachers who see themselves as writers. And even if I qualify, and I say, and I'm not talking about being professional at writers, but just see yourself have a strong image of yourself as a writer. And so part of what we're trying to accomplish in this book is to help deepen teacher's knowledge base around the teaching of writing. The deeper we can think about strategies, the deeper we can think about how to effectively confer with students, how to effectively teach in whole group settings, the better we can do that, the easier that is, and the more effective that is for teachers.
And it's always valuable to think about being a better writing teacher, but especially after the unusual past few years we've had. One of the things that I've seen over and over and over in classrooms is that because online teaching in a pandemic, teaching in lots of different structures was challenging, there's a lot of writing practices that we've seen kind of slip away. Conferring is one, right? Even though conferring would've been one of the things in the pandemic, if we just conferred with students one-on-one in their writing, that would be tremendously beneficial. But I hear from principals and teachers all the time that, yeah, I haven't been conferring like I used to. I mean, I think what we have to be careful about is it's easy to think well pandemic's over, and so things will just snap back to the way they were before. And I see all sorts of things in classrooms where things don't just snap back to the way they were.
And I understand why that is. I'm not blaming any teacher for that. When things are challenging, when things are difficult, for all sorts of reasons in education right now, it's not surprising that some of those practices don't just revert back to where they were pre-pandemic. And especially because students, or at least many students, did less writing during the pandemic than they would've in classrooms. Just like volume of writing has impacted students. And so now to react to that, we have to really be thinking about what are the most effective practices we can be thinking through? And then I think it's crucial for students to become better writers and for us to support them in that because of this generative creative self-expression aspect of writing. I'm never taking anything away from the importance of reading, but for me, there's always something a little different.
I'm a writing person rather than a reading person, primarily because I value the insights we get into children's thinking when they're writing. When they're generating something, when they're going from a empty book, a blank piece of paper to create something, to make something. We use that word all the time. I'm going to go make a book. We're go make something. The making part of writing I think is crucial because it gives us such an insight into how children are thinking.
We get that in reading in other areas as well, but in writing, we also have that concrete evidence on the page of their thinking. We saw that over and over in last couple of days in videos where children, we'd see one thing on the page, but then when we asked them about it, oh my gosh, so much more going on. Right? Such a deep rich thinking far beyond what was on the page in some situations. And so I think it's worth becoming better writing teachers simply because of the generative creating, right? I'm not talking about creative writing that way. I'm talking about the fact that children are making something, creating something and the thought processes that are involved and inherent in doing that.
Carl: And if I could piggyback on that, Matt, I just think also just having been back in classrooms the last year and a half, children having lived through a world historical traumatic event. I think in this particular time, writing is even more important for kids, for them to be able to express so many things and to try to make sense of their experiences over the last couple years, and to get a chance to communicate what they think. Communication was so difficult and so curtailed during the pandemic and just the relief the kids feel that I can talk to teachers again, I can sit next to teachers, but kids are, I think, their needs are very large right now in response to the pandemic and we as a profession really need to be able to rise to this moment. And so I think our book, I hope, will be helpful for people to help them rise to this moment.
Matt: I agree. And I think especially because we've really tried to ground this book in some key principles, some key beliefs and principles about teaching writing, and then how we put that into action. And so one of the things that we're always thinking about is principles and what are the actions that align to that? And so in this book, we have over 50 actions, right? 50 very specific things that teachers could do to become better writing teachers. It's not one of those books that we're thinking people are going to read cover to cover that. It's more of a dip in, dip out kind of book that there're going to be certain strategies that people want to work on first, and then they'll go to other strategies later. In fact, when we have 50 plus strategies, we know that we have my alternate list of here's strategies that we need to add or we're dying to add.
And so we'll start to figure out how to get those out in the world too, because all we've done now is we keep thinking of new actions. And so we've really tried to align, okay, if this principle is true, then what actions would align with that? So for example, one of the ones that we care deeply about, we taught this week, I did a workshop yesterday on this, and that's the idea of immersion at the beginning of a unit. Spending the first 2, 3, 4 days at the beginning of a unit studying a stack of texts so we know what we're going to write in that unit. And so we have to think about, okay, so there's a possible action we could take. Well, what principle is that built on? Well, it's built on the principle that'll be easier for children to write something if they have a clear vision for what this writing looks like, especially right at the beginning of the unit.
In fact, think of it, we could always think in the opposite with any of these principles, what would be the advantage of keeping this new type of writing a mystery, not showing students examples of it? And so if we believe that one of the best ways for students to learn about writing is by studying more experienced writers, something you and I believe firmly that to become better writers, we have to be able to study what do more skilled writers do, and we're always thinking about published writers studying what published writers do. That's what we're then doing on an immersion phase.
If we said, no, we don't really think it's important for students to learn what other authors do, then we wouldn't have an immersion phase. But we have that principle and then that tightly aligned action of we believe this principle is true. And part of the reason we think that is it's not just writing. One of the ways to learn to do anything in the world is by studying what more skilled people do. And so certainly with writing, we want to be studying right from the beginning what published skilled authors do so we can start to try that out. There's that tight belief and action.
Carl: So yeah, I just think that's a really interesting feature of our book and what we're doing in the institute is just laying out what we've come to understand are the foundational principles of teaching writing, and then including for each principal, five or six actions that teachers can take to help them align their practice and principle with the end result being this is going to help you become a better writing teacher. So in our book, we have a series of chapters. Each chapter is focused on an important principle for teaching writing. And then we lay out 5, 6, 7 actions that teachers can take to align their practice to that principle. So we do have a chapter on learning from authors, its one of the best ways to learn about teaching writing. Another principle that we've devoted a chapter two is the idea that student engagement is crucial for students to learn well, and that's something that Matt and I value very deeply.
And so if that principle is true, which we think it is, then what actions can we take to really help kids be engaged? And for example, one of the actions in the book is to look across a writing curriculum and look for units in which kids can choose their own genres. Because we know that when kids can choose genres, they tend to be much more highly engaged. And so that's one action in that chapter. And we saw that this week, Matt, both of us did lessons with primary and upper grade children in which we taught them how to make a good choice of a genre when you have the opportunity, make the choice.
And remember the fifth graders that I was working with, as soon as they had a chance to turn and talk and think about which genres they would choose, hands went right up. I'm going to write fantasy. I'm going to write a mashup of humor and fantasy. I want to write a profile, and the kids got incredibly excited and perked right up at the idea of that kind of choice. But that's one of the many actions in the book, is to really think about how to include units that have choice of genre in them.
Matt: It so it was absolutely classic what you'd expect to see in those grades. So the first thing they said is fantasy, right? Yep. Happens time and time and time again. So I know you enjoyed that particularly. One of the nice things about this book, Carl though, is there are things that I talk about and you talk about in workshops and in working with teachers that haven't necessarily written about in a book. And so one of the things I talk about constantly is the idea of teaching as opposed to telling, reminding, correcting. I talk about all the time, and I mentioned that in other books and places, but it was so nice to be able to have this avenue, this big collection of different actions, different things we care about in the teaching of writing, and then for them to have a home, a place out in the world that we can point people to think about this particular action.
And so of course, something like teaching versus telling, reminding and correcting is built on that belief that people learn best when someone is showing them how to do something, right? Reminding isn't teaching, telling isn't teaching, correcting isn't teaching. And that people learn much better when teachers are actually teaching, demonstrating, modeling, showing. You can always see it in my conference. I'll say, let me show you how to do something. Right? It's that idea let me show model, teach as opposed tell, remind, correct. All right. So we are so excited to be able to look forward to the Summer Institute. We're going to talk about so many of these things and really excited for our book to be out in the fall. Thanks so much for everyone, for listening.
Carl: Matt, thanks for as always, thanks for getting a chance to chat with you about teaching writing.
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, and consultant for over 30 years. He is the author and co-author of many Heinemann titles including I Am Reading, Engaging Young Writers, Projecting Possibilities for Writers, Already Ready, and Watch Katie and Matt…Sit Down and Teach Up, a video- enhanced ebook. Matt was also co-editor with Ellin Oliver Keene of a best-selling collection of essays, The Teacher You Want to Be.
An international literacy consultant, Matt frequently speaks on topics related to nurturing writers of all ages, early reading, and supporting children’s intellectual development.