NWP gave me a wonderful opportunity to join other SEED grant coordinators and spend 5 days writing instruments to assist teacher consultants who will be coordinating future grants for professional development in writing.
What follows here is a shorter version for presenting the idea to administrators and staff when making a proposal.
I have worked and talked with talented teacher presenters who tell me that their workshop time cannot include teachers writing, because there is so much content to include. In other words, the pd model becomes direct teaching with modeling some moves a teacher might make. This is useful for teachers who need new strategies, however, for teachers who teach writing it is not likely to improve the teacher’s ability to write.
In addition to the time issue for delivering professional development in writing, with the belief that what teachers need and want is more strategies, there is the obvious (though often overlooked) point that practitioners of any other craft or profession do not attempt to teach what they don’t know how to do well. Imagine: Dentist who dabbled in dentistry in college, now going to work on your teeth. Tennis teacher who doesn’t play tennis, willing to teach you for a fee. Fireman who knows a lot of theory about fires but has never put one out, rushing in on your stove fire.
The first challenge is to believe that all students deserve high-quality, authentic writing instruction and not succumb to the “talent” model that supposes that only a select few of the class can and will write well. 21st C learning demands the high level thinking that is built by thoughtful literacy instruction though out a student’s learning career.
One of the features necessary to a writers workshop (and good classroom instruction) is a warm, caring community in which risk taking and honesty are available. Great teachers instinctively build these environments. However, the atmosphere in professional development sessions, especially those which are selected by admin and not by teachers, is often not a learning community. And, these pd sessions are seldom about writing instruction!
Perhaps there is an “ice breaker” or a little warm up to soften the crowd, some of who clearly do not want to be there, and then the presenter launches into hours worth of content. It is a direct teaching model, even when there are turnouts for table activities. And the teachers leave with a packet and some notes scribbled on slides.
My experience of writing groups that work comes from the Writing Project. In the Intensive Summer Institute, the first provocations to write center on getting to know the voices and people in the room. The resources for these activities will be in another blog post.
Listening is the key to our literacy instruction in the classroom. Likewise, it is the key to building a caring community of learners. The facilitators or teacher leaders model listening and emphasize it as a skill from the outset. It will flourish and then so will the sharing of writing and ideas.
Teachers come into pd with negative experiences of staff development and they also often have to teach in situations in which they have little agency. Their capacity to make decisions for their instruction is often overridden by mandates or programatic directives from “above” them. One of the most imporant pieces in developing great writing pd is to establish the agency of each teacher. This is similar to the writing workshop philosophy and practice that aims to create independent writers, the style of instruction that allows students to be in charge of their own writing. Not just to make choices of topics, but to decide when to revise or not.
The teachers in my district who participated in afternoon writing groups after school reported that the thing that made the most difference in their teaching was to take the “Prompt Pledge.” They valued the Moonlight University instruction and the teacher consultants who came in and worked in classrooms, and found working on their own writing helpful, but posting and honoring the prompt pledge to “walk a mile in your students’ moccasins” made the most impact.
For decades the writing workshop process model has helped teachers shift from assign/grade in an error correction model to one that facilitates student learning and teacher savvy in writing instruction. However, even teachers who structure writing classrooms as a workshop, and who teach short clear craft moves in minilessons –often ask their students to take writing benchmarks from the district, or tests, or to write assigned pieces — without writing to the prompt themselves.
In addition, time-pressed teachers often limit their “reflection” on practice to sighs and comments in the staff room with their peers. They don’t get the advantage of the discovery draft that reveals their thinking to them, because they are not given and do not take time to write reflectively on their practice. (Not after an M.A. program, anyway)
While changing our teaching to a proven workshop model will immediately improve student writing, real growth can be measured over time. Teachers are people too, and growth takes time. Writing develops. Writing, as composing, rather than formulaic writing instruction, will take time to gain skill in all the aspects.
I think that promoting authentic writing instruction is similar to advocating for the arts in schools. Both composing and design can be demystified. Students can learn to write multigenre pieces and for real world purposes just the same as they can learn to design and produce posters, digital pieces and high-quality visual communications.
It goes back to what we believe. What is your credo for writing? What do you believe about writing instruction in schools?
As a educator, would it change your teaching to write with other teachers in a workshop? Would it matter to write along with your students, not just to produce a model or example, but to join a community of thinkers?