On Convincing Students that Learning to Write Matters

Chapter 1: Moving Writing to the Front Burner
WriteLikeThis_

Kelly Gallagher starts his book Write Like This: Teaching Real-World Writing Through Modeling and Mentoring with the paradox that the ability to write well is more essential now than it has ever been.  The long-term success of young people in the 21st century is directly affected by their ability to write well.   And that more young people are graduating high school unable to write well.

“Writing well does not begin with teaching students how to write,” Gallagher says on page 7. “It begins with teaching students why they should write.”

This brings us to premise #1 of his book – “Introduce Young Writers to Real-World Discourses.”   His point is that English instruction needs to move away from academic writing and toward the range and types of writing students will need to do after they graduate.

He writes “if I want my students to work toward becoming real-world writers, I need to shift the focus of my writing instruction toward real-world writing purposes.”   The way he categorizes writing purposes and uses those categories to help students brainstorm more effectively is an idea I plan to put to use in my classroom.

Writer’s Purposes

  • Express and Reflect : reflects on own life & experience
  • Inform and Explain : states a main point / presents information
  • Evaluate and Judge : focuses on worth of something, judges “good” or “bad”
  • Inquire and Explore : wrestles with a question or problem
  • Analyze and Interpret : analyzes and interprets
  • Take a Stand / Propose a Solution : persuades others

“Much like painters who create different kinds of paintings, writers create different kinds of writing,” he writes on page 11.  “Giving students stacks of newspapers and having them hunt for the various purposes helps them begin to understand that not all writing is the same.”

I like this activity – having students hunt through newspapers for examples of these purposes.   Even better, this structure then lends itself to this class activity:

writelikethis002

Gallagher describes working with students to take a topic like “volleyball” and rethink how many ways they could write about volleyball.   He calls these categories “writing territories.”

In chapters 2 through 7, Gallagher takes each of these writing territories and gives examples of writing assignments that lend themselves to each purpose.  I’ll blog more in depth about some of those strategies in future posts.

In chapter 8, he shares “ideas on how to move students past lousy first-draft writing and into meaningful revision and editing.”  As he points out, “it’s one thing to get students to write in each of these discourses; It’s another thing to get them to write well in each of these discourses.”

Importantly though, in chapter one, he shares a second central premise – how important it is to provide students with extensive teacher and real-world models.

He’s a fan of relevant and engaging “mentor texts.”   But he also wants language arts teachers to embrace the fact that we’re the most skilled writers in the classroom and to model writing in real-time in front of students.

That’s right – he wants us to take the assignments, the prompts, the topics, and show students how writers write by writing and narrating our thinking as we write in front of students.

I have concerns with this – how am I to write from a fresh perspective if I have two or three sections of the same class in a row? What if I am too skilled a writer, and I scare my students as they hear me narrate my writing process?   What if I get stuck and can think of nothing to say … a public writer’s block?

It’s going to take courage to make myself vulnerable by writing publicly in front of my students, like a small-town Bob Ross, but I can see how it might be a more effective strategy than what I’m doing now.

So … here’s Gallagher’s first chapter summary … “there you have it, the formula that underscores this book : Teach your students real-world writing purposes, add a teacher who models his or her struggles with the writing process, throw in lots of real-world mentor texts for students to emulate, and give our kids the time necessary to enable them to stretch as writers.”

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