Teaching Opinion

Response: Many Ways English Teachers Can Improve Their Craft

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 24, 2013 7 min read
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(This is Part One of a two-part series)

Last week’s question was:

How can English Teachers Best Improve Their Craft?

I’ve previously posted a number of responses that apply to this question, including a five-part series on teaching reading and another five-part series on teaching writing.

You also might be interested in a collection of posts I’ve written specifically about books -- Why They’re Important & How To Help Students Select, Read, Write & Discuss Them.

And, of course, previous posts here on classroom management and on student motivation might also be useful.

But there is a lot more that can be said about how we can all become better English teachers, and several special guests will be sharing their thoughts in this two-part series. Today, author/educators Penny Kittle and Carol Jago have contributed responses. Next week’s post will include pieces from Jim Burke and David B. Cohen, as well as comments from readers.

Heinemann Publishers has contributed copies of the most recent books by Carol, Penny and Jim for a book raffle. If you are interested in participating, just email me your name and address. I’ll pick three names out of a hat in two weeks and winners will receive one of the three books.

Response From Penny Kittle

Penny Kittle is an English teacher at Kennett High School in North Conway, New Hampshire and the author of five books with Heinemann, including Book Love and Write Beside Them.

Write with your students. Write for yourself

Write. It is what we need to survive this profession--and not just survive, but to find lasting joy in our work. Of course it is critical that we practice what we’re asking students to know and demonstrate with confidence and power. It is crucial that we lead students through the writing process by modeling our own. But when I think of the demands on all of us, I believe that writing is an answer for more than just good teaching.

Teaching has always been hard: so many students, only one of me. How can we live present and in awe, as Anne Lamott says, in such an exacting profession? I came to the answer early because I’d had a lifetime of practice. I’d always worked in a notebook, writing my life from dolls to tennis to boyfriends to reflections on teaching. I learned to trust myself as a writer and use it in my teaching because I lived its value. My most important college assignments were free writing: keeping a notebook of observations for a poetry class and writing daily during student teaching. That writing is rich with uncertainty. Instead of the manufactured voice I crafted for analytical papers, I told the truth. I paid attention. Free writing was a bridge to better writing in all genres. But as I’ve collected my years in this profession, writing has also helped me name and notice what I’m doing, how it is working, and what I need to try next. Writing has helped me live present and in awe of my students.

It isn’t enough to recognize good writing when you see it. It isn’t enough to break essays into parts and become a master of rubric or trait scoring. We must write. We teach writers how to work beyond the inevitable despair of clunky language and incoherent arguments because we’ve worked on our own. Recently. If English teachers don’t write, we might draft lesson plans that don’t help writers, like asking students to write essay introductions first. I don’t. Sometimes I don’t even recognize the argument I’m writing until I’ve written (badly) about an idea for a while. My notebooks are filled with unfinished thinking, rambling, sketches, and then suddenly, phrases that make sense. Once in awhile I draft an essay that requires few revisions--it might even have an introduction--but this experience is too rare to count on. We all need practice studying excellent models of writing and then time to play with words and ideas in order to become confident, flexible writers.

In crafting an informal argument like this one, I let ideas percolate. I think about subjects while driving or cooking. I procrastinate. The first draft is the hardest part, and I avoid it. Today I wrote big ideas and phrases, then started filling in examples to support my thinking. I deleted distractions. I’ve been rethinking every word as the sky has slowly turned from deep navy to pale grey. I will tinker as I make more coffee, walk the dog, and help my daughter pack for her last semester of college. I walk away from words in order to find them.

I think Charlotte Bronte and I were meant to wander the hills around Haworth together, composing aloud, reading our world as writers. But alas, I was born in the wrong country and century. What Charlotte and Emily and Anne created, though, was a writing group around their dining room table. They read their words aloud and crafted in community. I had no idea how powerful this could be until I spent years with a writing group, forging relationships with other English teachers. I discovered how their feedback could support or slay me. I became a writing teacher because I lived the drafting, revising, and responding to feedback process, and thus, learned how to support and challenge writers. And I found lasting friends who continue to hold me up on the darkest of teaching days.

It isn’t just that we need to understand why writers seek distractions to break the intensity of creating--or why they lose faith in their ideas and give up--it is that we must live the struggle to say what we mean in words. It can relieve the inevitable, relentless pressure of teaching. It will also empower us to guide our students to a satisfying dance with words.

Response From Carol Jago

Carol Jago has taught middle and high school in Santa Monica, California for 32 years. She is past president of the National Council of Teachers of English and author of With Rigor for All: Helping Students Meet Common Core Standards for Reading Literature (Heinemann 2011).

Advice from Someone Who Learned the Hard Way

1. Stop telling students that reading is fun, though not because it can’t be. “Reading is fun!” puts books in competition with World of Warcraft and Grand Theft Auto. If students groan, “I can’t do it. This is too hard!” as you distribute copies of a novel, agree with them that reading this book may be hard in places, but assure them that with effort and your help they will be able to read the book. Experience has taught teenagers that if they complain loudly for long enough, the teacher will often abandon a difficult text for something shorter, simpler, and funnier. Don’t fall for it.

2. Address, don’t avoid challenging vocabulary. Instead of looking for books without difficult vocabulary or figurative language, teach students how to meet these challenges. Rather than pre-teaching all the hard words in a chapter, select a few to teach that are critical to understanding the passage. Also, while assigning and assessing lists of relatively random words is common teaching practice, that isn’t how you developed a robust vocabulary. You did it by reading.

3. Teach student how to negotiate complex syntax. Reading long, complicated sentences is a challenge for all everyone but particularly for today’s students in the habit of skimming and scanning Twitter updates. Teachers need to help students slow the pace of their reading for literature and develop the habit of rereading when a sentence doesn’t seem to make sense. Though rereading doesn’t have a cool acronym or fancy graphic organizer, it is the technique experienced readers employ most often. When was the last time you reached for a KWL chart when struggling through a challenging text? Don’t seek out rewritten texts. Teach the real thing by helping students parse of each complex phrase.

4. Assign homework reading. In too many schools, teachers have stopped assigning homework reading altogether, principally because students have stopped doing it. This is the path to perdition for literature study. If a teacher reads aloud Lord of the Flies to a class of tenth graders, the only person in the room becoming a better reader is the teacher. I sometimes hear the excuse that there aren’t enough copies of the books to send home with students. In many one-to-one laptop or e-reader programs the machines must remain at school. This is educational malpractice. Students need to develop the self-discipline and stamina necessary to read for extended periods of time on their own. How else will they be ready for college? The amount of reading required in college can be up to eight times greater than what students are reading in high school.

Thanks to Penny and Carol for contributing their responses.

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here. As I mentioned earlier, I’ll be including readers’ thoughts in the next post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of seven published by published by Jossey-Bass.

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And,if you missed any of the highlights from the first year of this blog, you can check them out here. You can also see a list of the ten most popular posts in 2012.

Look for Part Two next week....

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.