I recently read an article in The Atlantic by Cindy O’Donnell-Allen titled: “The Best Writing Teachers are Writers Themselves.”
The title alone intrigued me. After all, this seemed obvious (and more than a little self-serving). I am a writer and I teach how to write. It seems natural.
But then I thought more about who else is teaching writing to our young people. Certainly students are being taught the fundamentals of writing in school with teachers who have taken curriculum and education courses in college. These teachers have passed state licensing and certification tests. Certainly these teachers are well equipped to teach writing...or are they?
Writing as a discipline is difficult to teach primarily because it doesn’t fit into any of the traditional school subjects. We use grammar in good writing—but knowing grammar doesn’t automatically make you a strong writer. We use spelling in writing—but being a great speller doesn’t make you a well rounded writer.
Writing is complex and personal. It is not something that can be outlined on the board, memorized, and regurgitated. Writing is a process: and if you aren’t intimately familiar with the process, how can you teach it to beginners?
You see, I love to write. I do. In fact, I love writing just about anything: lists, rhymes, articles, letters, proposals, books, plays, ...anything. I’ve been writing ever since I learned how to hold a pencil. Writing is a significant part of my daily life. And truth be told, my own writing continues to improve with each passing project … because it IS a process and the learning never ends.
It surprised me, then, to read another article in The Quarterly where teachers in a writing seminar were taken aback by the suggestion that they write with their students. As Tim Gillespie of the Oregon Writing Project found out, school teachers and administrators are not always in favor of creating expert writer/teachers.
"Look,'" said one principal, "With all due respect, I'm a little tired of all this creative experience stuff. I don't give a damn if my teachers can write a pretty little poem or story; I want them to know how to teach writing."
Basically, this administrator doesn’t care if the teachers can do the work [write] so long as they can tell children what to do. This is akin to not caring if a math teacher can do algebra as long as he can read the rules out loud from the teacher’s guide.
Clearly, this is not logical.
Schools wouldn’t hire a social studies teacher to teach algebra. They wouldn’t hire a PE teacher to teach physics. Why then do we not demand the same training and proficiency for teachers of writing?
How can a teacher who rarely picks up a pencil to write (no matter how outstanding his/her grammar may be) identify with a student with writer’s block? How can a teacher who has never written for pure joy and pleasure identify with a student’s enthusiasm when their character comes to life in their imagination? How can a teacher who hasn’t struggled to write a thesis give practical tips and suggestions to his students.
Writing needs to be nurtured as much as taught.
The only way to become a proficient teacher of writing is to write yourself—to experience the trial and error, highs and lows...writer’s block and all.
If every teacher who assigned a 10 minute writing prompt to a class of middle-schoolers sat down and wrote alongside her students, she would absolutely be able to identify with the task at hand. She would be able to set the good example—and, yes, sometimes she might miss the mark, but isn’t that an essential learning moment?
Students would see that every writer begins with a rough draft. They would learn what the process of writing looks like. By sharing and writing with students instead of teaching at them, wouldn’t students gain a stronger experience to draw from?
It is time to take the teaching of writing more seriously and demand the best teachers for this discipline in our schools.