I finished Penny Kittle’s excellent Write Beside Them yesterday, and I arrived at school completely energized and excited to start teaching. This was a reread for me, but one that I desperately needed. I first read it in 2009 when the book first came out and, while I took a lot away from it, the book didn’t really revolutionize my teaching. I loved the idea of writing with students, and I definitely began to incorporate more “authentic” writing in my class, but I was teaching five sections of AP English Language to students who were motivated and excited to write. I just didn’t need the book.
Fast forward to this year. My AP students are great, but I only have three classes of them. I’ve noticed that their level of engagement and intellectual curiosity has waned over the years, and I was already feeling a staleness to our writing workshop routine. But I didn’t reread Kittle’s book for my AP students; I reread for my academic students.
I teach two sections of Academic juniors this year for the first time since I started at my current school. I like them because unlike AP students my Academic students aren’t as afraid of failure. They’re willing to take more risks in their thinking and their writing. But they’re also less intrinsically motivated and struggle a lot more with writing. As we plowed through the literary essay and the expository essay, I could feel their interest seeping away. I tried a creative project with Macbeth (a Choose Your Own Adventure Story, which actually went very well), but still their writing (and reading) seemed painfully torturous for both the students and for me.
So I reread Kittle’s book, hoping for some inspiration. Oh my goodness, did I get it! Kittle was able to articulate things I’ve believed and felt with these Academic classes since the beginning of the year but didn’t trust myself to put into words: my students don’t need to master the literary essay. They need to do it, and they need to be comfortable doing it, but it shouldn’t be the only kind of writing they come to expect in Room 235. Instead, they need to be writing the way real people write–to express their ideas, to inform, to persuade.
There were times in my reading when I had to stop my nagging critical voice. Kittle is blessed with 83 minute periods. I’m saddled with 44. Even when she “modifies” her plans for shorter classes, her modifications are for 60 minutes. I’d love to have those 15 minutes, but I’m stuck with what I have. Similarly, Kittle is fortunate enough to teach a writing class. And only writing. I teacher British Literature, and if my juniors don’t head off to senior year with at least a passing understanding of Macbeth and Romantic poetry (and how to write about it), I’m going to hear about it. If I had read Kittle’s book before Winter Break (when I was DECIDEDLY crankier), I might have dismissed her philosophy there. “Oh sure, easy for her to say. She teaches writing for 1,000 hours a day. I have to slog through Beowulf and literary analysis!”
But it hit me yesterday–I don’t HAVE to do that if it’s not best for the students. I don’t have to expose them to every piece of literature ever written by an author under the Union Jack, and I don’t have to have them write 50 papers on symbolism. I’m advocate for student choice in the classroom, but I’m not sold on abandoning the whole class novel just yet. But why couldn’t I do both? My students are not going to be English majors. Some of them may not go to college. So why place these artificial constraints on their learning? I could cover the biggies (we’ve already done Beowulf and Macbeth) while dealing with some more modern texts (Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro is on deck). I could teach them how to write so they could turn around and write about literature.
We launched the Writer’s Notebook again today. Before it was a place to copy what was on the blackboard. We decorated our notebooks today and we’ll begin quick and free writing tomorrow. I haven’t completely reinvented the wheel yet, and I know it’s still a bit of an experiment, but I think I’m well on my way. Kittle’s book isn’t a road map. She doesn’t provide readers with a step by step guide to creating writing nirvana in the classroom. But her passion for writing is contagious. I’m hoping to follow her 15 minutes of writing a day rule, even if it’s disjointed and scattershot. I’m hoping my students will follow it as well. I highly recommend Write Beside Them for anyone hoping to reinvigorate their writing instruction. I know it helped me!
What do you do when you fall into a writing rut? How do you balance what students “need” to know and what they need to know?