Tuesday is the last meeting of a graduate course I teach for GMU called “The Teaching of Writing.” This farewell class will take place at a local pub and feature a “readaround” where we’ll share and respond to pieces developed in workshop that are collated in a class anthology, titled (by class vote) Tuesdays with Emmet.
The course, for teachers of grades K-high school and any subject, was based on an established writing project model. For 15 weeks, 23 colleagues and I met weekly to hear presentations from other teachers about some aspect of the teaching of writing; to read and respond in discussion and in writing to professional books and articles; and, to participate in writing groups that allowed us to develop personal work and gain experience to help use these groups in our own classrooms.
I spent this weekend responding to portfolios where participants presented evidence of and reflected on their growth as teachers, learners, and writers. Sifting through the portfolios took a good bit of time, but I found myself lingering over each rather than rushing through them, realizing that this might be the last time I heard this particular teacher’s voice.
It came to me that the 23 dialogues I had shared with these colleagues over the course of many weeks, and the larger conversation we engaged in during class, had been as rewarding to me as it had to them. The opportunity to teach this course reminded me that the most valuable form of professional development involves engaged dialogue among practicing professionals in a supportive environment. Below are excerpts from a few of the end of course letters and my responses. They are reward in and of themselves, but I also intend to use them as evidence for Entry Four.
H: When I began this course, I taught writing from grammar and literature books. My students dreaded writing and I dreaded teaching them writing. I had them write from prompts that they found boring... None of this writing ever excited or shook me to the core. Throughout this course I tried various strategies from the teacher consultants who presented to our class. Some of these strategies flopped and some really connected with my students. At no time was I bored. I was eager to see if the strategies would work, I was nervous about what to do when they flopped, and sometimes I was surprised by how much I really got from my students.
Hi H: Your first couple paragraphs make you eligible for writing project poster teacher of the year (this does not involve milk cartons). It’s been so rewarding to see how open you were to the ideas of the course, and how energetically you applied them. I also like how you’re not afraid to admit it when something flops or isn’t right for your teaching. Also, thanks for being my classroom helper. Having you there to help with signs or just find a xerox room relieved a lot of stress for me... [you] can chat with my pets anytime (don’t believe everything the cat says, she’s a little vindictive).
P: The course has certainly turned me into a writer. Do I suddenly have the urge to write a novel, an editorial, a philosophical treatise? Maybe. But essentially I’ve experienced some of the aesthetic power of writing and am encouraged to continue... Although I’ve obviously used writing as a process for learning in my academic and teaching career, the components of the course-- the presentations, the books about writing, and the writing groups-- have clarified and reinforced the necessity of writing and that I do not do enough of it. As a teacher, I’ve come to view writing as a more vital tool for engaging students in finding their own voice...
Hi P: What an exciting discovery of voice, both literal and figurative. I really admire the gentle yet erudite way you have in expressing your responses, and I’m glad that the course provided fodder for this mill. Vic’s ideas also made a strong impression on me when I first heard them, and still do with every new presentation. Your affinity for twilight imagery speaks to your appreciation for ambiguity, the mark of a good literature teacher. But the biggest difference I see between PP #1 and #2 is exactly what you spoke of-- the literature teacher’s voice has given way to one that is warmer, less at a distance. I think that will carry over into your teaching with gratifying rewards.
F: I used to be a bit of a hypocrite. I enjoyed teaching how to write but I never believed that I could write... Over the first few writing group sessions, my attitude changed greatly... The women in my writing group have given me confidence as a writer... My readings combined with our class discussions and speakers helped me become more knowledgeable about the writing process. Often, educators plan their lessons and work very hard to help guide their students through the writing process but have no idea why one activity or lesson promotes student learning. I strive always to have sound evidence or research to back up my lessons. This class and my readings have not only introduced me to wonderful teaching ideas, I can now support my writing lessons with evidence that they incorporate successful techniques that promote student learning.
Hi F: Your growth in the writing group is apparent in this work, and I’m so glad you discovered your voice through the powerful experience of sharing work with “the ladies.” I also think you’ve hit the nail on the head when you say that the purpose of this class goes beyond getting great methods to getting meaningful theory to support those methods. You started the class as a teacher full of both optimism and a repertoire of Calkins-influenced techniques. I think you’re leaving as an even stronger teacher, because you now not only have a firmer foundation of critical theory from which you can draw to both enhance and question those techniques, you also have a reservoir of experience as a writer outside your graduate school “comfort zone” that allows you to appreciate the struggles and challenges your own students face as emerging writers.
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