I spent a good part of one summer working with a group of clever teachers creating units of study for writing instruction. The writer’s notebook became the centerpiece for our classes, and we created notebook work that would help students develop writing muscles. We selected genres for focus, then started to collect mentor and touchstone texts. We discussed how to teach students to find craft and how to model our writing for them. The curriculum team planned assessment for both full process and on-demand writing, and chose appropriate rubrics. Finally, we packaged all our work in dandy Understanding By Design templates.
Of course, there is always a glitch.
Throughout the curriculum project, we continued to trip over one question. If we implement all these great ideas to teach writing, where we will find time to work on reading.
Fortunately, we weren’t stumbling around in the dark on our own. We had a consultant to lead us. Her name is Erica Denman; she trained at Teacher’s College, Columbia University, and if you want to improve the writing instruction in your school, hire her.
Erica offered a simple solution to our stumbling block: Sometimes it’s a good idea to let the writing drive the reading.
Writing to improve reading isn’t exactly a new idea. Using writing to drive the reading end of the curriculum is a little more outside the box.
The concept has tremendous merit.
At the core of effective writing instruction are the mentor texts we use to learn various genres. When students study mentors, they read with specific purposes: to find the voice, to learn the craft, and to deconstruct the structure. Students engage in much higher levels of thinking than they do if when they read to just to find out what happens in the story.
From Erica Denman, I learned that teaching students to work from mentor texts teaches them a valuable method of problem-solving that they can apply to many situations. When you have a task to complete, and you don’t know how to complete it, find examples of someone who has accomplished the same sort of task before, and learn from them.
I do it all the time. I would much rather work from the picture on the box than from a set of instructions when assembling almost anything, from a grill to a lawnmower. (Although, I confess, that method doesn’t always work when putting together a machine that has to work. The guts of writing piece are more visible than the inner workings of a small, internal combustion engine.)
Teaching students to analyze and write from mentors takes writing instruction a giant step above just a set of instructions for a five-paragraph essay or a three-page short story or a ten-page research paper.
When students start to see writing tasks as a form of verbal problem-solving rather than just a chore to complete, they take a leap forward in crafting meaningful writing pieces.
They start to read and think like problem solvers. The writing itself is just a way to present their solution to an audience.
Right now, one of my high school classes is working on a literary analysis paper examining which character or characters are to blame for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet. They have the play to analyze, and they have commentaries to read. That gives them content.
I also have them reading Roger Ebert’s brilliant movie reviews available on rogerebert.com to learn voice and New York Times book reviews to learn structure.
Through this process, students learn to ask the valuable questions:
- What is the writer doing?
- Why is the writer this?
- What does the writer want the reader to think here?
- How would I do it in my writing?
Too often we fall into this pattern: we decide we want to read The Witch of Blackbird Pond. We read the text, perhaps using techniques from Harvey Daniels or Kylene Beers or Cris Tovani as our pedagogy. All good stuff.
Then, we get to the end of the book and decide we need an assessment. We pick a writing topic and assign it. Eventually, we collect a finished piece, and we curse ourselves for ever making the assignment when we have to grade 50 putrid essays about Kit’s attempt to confirm to Puritan society.
Here’s a alternative approach: Decide on a writing genre — perhaps argument or analysis. Select a book or books. Then teach the students to read with the writing task in mind. That adds deeper and more authentic purpose to the reading. As your students work through The Witch of Blackbird Pond, you toss in various supplementary readings on topics like Puritans, Quakers and all sorts of witch hunts.
When your class gets to the end of the book, they examine mentor essays about the teenagers searching for identity or conformity versus rebellion. You might find good examples in NPR’s “This I Believe” and “This American Life” collections.
Both the reading and writing improve from taking this approach.
A writing-driven genre study approach works wonders when teaching poetry, drama, short story and non-fiction. Students learn to read the genre by learning to write it.
Writing becomes more than a task; it becomes more than an assessment; it becomes more than test prep; it becomes more than filler between reading units — all stations it has held in the past.
Writing facilitates clear, analytical thinking about reading at levels reading and discussion only could never reach.
Now for the promised, mandatory disclaimer: Writing should not drive all reading instruction.
Writing has its limits.
I believe the number one rule that should drive all instruction is authenticity. We don’t always read so that we can write. Sometimes we read just to be entertained. Sometimes we read just to satisfy curiosity. Authentic purpose for reading should always be at the core of our instruction.
To accomplish all reading purposes, we need to teach students how to monitor their comprehension and how to fix it when it breaks down. Many students struggle to engage with texts, and we have a primary responsibility to teach them how to do that.
All reading and reading instruction should center on what our students need at that moment. All other goals, objectives, standards and essential questions come in second to helping our students with whatever difficulties they face at the moment.