6 habits of a good (and always improving) writing teacher

Language arts has always been my jam. When I was about 10, my most prized possession was a boxed set of the entire Ramona Quimby series. Eight years later, it didn’t take long to settle on English for my major in college. What ended up surprising me, after so much certainty about what corner of academics I most belong in, was how hard teaching writing can be.

I served as English faculty at a community college in Salem, Oregon, when I was in my early thirties. During my three-year tenure, I was overwhelmed more often than not. I had about a hundred students submitting writing every time class met, most of whom I struggled to give adequate support to (many were overwhelmed themselves by the demands of an advanced writing class).

I was required to assign a final project: a 10-page, single-spaced technical report requiring at least 10 secondary sources, citations, and visuals. When my psych colleagues two office doors down ran a few Scantrons through the machine during finals week and called it a term, the rest of us in the English department buckled under the weight of an endless stack of words to read and grade in just three days.

There’s no way around how hard teaching writing can be, not really, but since joining NWEA, I’ve learned a lot from my colleagues about formative assessment, assessment empowerment, the zone of proximal development, and the value of committing to a shared vision of what writing instruction should look like. I’ve thought a lot about what I like about my practice and what I would do differently, if given another chance in the classroom. I’d like to think that I could approach teaching writing with a little more confidence now.

My four best habits: 1. Eschew perfection, 2. Plan with the end in mind, 3. Model, and 4. Honor individualism

Many of us teacher types are prone to be extra hard on ourselves (as though the work isn’t already hard enough). When I reflect on how I would approach teaching writing differently, it’s easy to get distracted by memories of how I failed my students.

There’s no way around how hard teaching writing can be.

Maybe the best habit I developed during my time teaching was reminding myself that I could not be perfect. When I felt that crush of being overwhelmed, I would remind myself of the factors working against me: Too-large classes. Students who hadn’t received the support and instruction they needed to be ready for an advanced writing class. Strict deadlines for submitting final course grades. A teacher can only do so much with so many chips stacked against her. Acknowledging that was a huge help. So was repeating little mantras to myself, like, “You’re doing the best you can, and the best you can is more than good enough.”

Another thing I did was plan with the end in mind. I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe this part of my process until I edited a blog post by my former colleague, Brooke Mabry, titled “How responsive planning can strengthen your formative assessment practice.” What she describes is really quite simple: think about the goal you want your students to meet, then work backward, establishing a plan that will help them get there, step by step. The goal for my students was clear: that final technical report.

While I couldn’t deviate from requiring the report, how I got my students to that finish line was up to me. I decided how many assignments my students needed to complete to be ready for that final project. Since I knew research and documentation were challenging for many of them, for example, I had an annotated bibliography assignment early on that required them to provide citations for and summaries of three articles they hoped to use in their final report. This allowed me to see how well they were doing with finding reliable sources, comprehending the information in the sources, using evidence to support their claims, and citing the sources correctly to avoid plagiarism, skills that could make or break their final report. In another assignment, I would ask them to create a visual representation of data related to their topic that would strengthen their argument.

All told, I had about six assignments related to the report, spaced out over the course of the term to allow enough time for students to complete the work and me to assess it. By the time they had to turn in their final project, they didn’t have to do anything new; they just had to pull all their refined or new skills together, portfolio style, after receiving the benefit of discussion and feedback on each individual report component, of course.

During our times for discussion and feedback, I modeled for my students how to complete each and every one of these individual tasks by providing samples that allowed them to see what a ready-to-turn-in assignment should look like. We walked through these models in detail, at the end of a lesson. I made sure every student had a copy of them so they could refer to them as often as needed during their writing process. When providing feedback on their drafts, I would also refer to these models. I would note the ways we knew a source on the sample annotated bibliography was valuable, for example, or point to how the example visual had a clear, well-placed title.

To honor their individualism and foster engagement, I let my students decide what topics they wanted to write about, with some caveats. (Why caveats? Because audience analysis is a critical part of effective writing instruction. I was honest that I was my students’ sole audience and that there were some topics they would simply struggle to reach me with.) My colleague Julie Richardson speaks to this, too, in her post “Make writing real: 5 reasons authentic purposes and audiences empower student writers.”

As I think about what I’ve learned since my days in the classroom, I think there are ways I could have done things differently.

Many of my students picked topics related to their major, like firefighting or nursing, or to their lived experience, like service in the Armed Forces or daily life as a single mom. In giving my students this choice, I took that required report and married it with two important truths about writing we have documented in the NWEA stances on writing: it can empower students and help them think more deeply and critically. (It’s hard to feel empowered when your teacher tells you what to write about. It’s equally hard to engage actively with a topic that means nothing to you.)

Two more habits to help me grow: 5. Get creative with revisions and 6. Accept help more

Because of the overwhelm, I was very strict about late work when I was teaching. I simply wouldn’t take it. I rarely allowed students to revise, too. Because, I’m sorry, but can I be real right now? When would I sleep if I did? How could I ever possibly maintain any semblance of sanity over the course of an 11-week term if I regraded more assignments and bent all the due date rules for students while the biggest due date of all—the day I had to submit final grades—wasn’t even remotely negotiable?

As I think about what I’ve learned since my days in the classroom, I think there are ways I could have done things differently. For starters, I could have experimented with making the grades on all those individual assignments building up to the final report temporary. I could have told my students, “This is the grade you would get on this right now. If you’d like a chance at a higher grade, submit a revision with your rough draft.”

If too much regrading got me down, I could have tried something else: Let students know that their grade on the final report would be their final grade in the class. Did they get a D on that assignment to create a bar graph or other visual a few weeks into the term? No problem! The final report was a chance to improve it so much that it would shine as one of the handful of required components of the final report, boosting their chances of excelling on the report and earning an A or a B in the class.

My biggest regret may be how much I went at all this work alone. I could have leaned on the college’s writing center or more in-class workshops (or both!) to help students get more personalized support when I wasn’t available. All of the volunteers in the writing center were fellow faculty and adjuncts familiar enough with the content of the technical writing class to guide students. In-class peers were the most familiar with what everyone was tasked with and uniquely positioned to provide each other support.

In your classroom

If we could all have infinite time to work with our students one-on-one, I’m certain we could make a bunch of Morrisons out of the lot of them. Unfortunately, we’re stuck in a system where we have to support and assess the writing of far too many students at once. All we can do is the best we can. It’s so true that the perfect is the enemy of the good.

As you work toward being good enough at teaching writing, I encourage you to plan with the end in mind, model assignments, give students the autonomy to select topics they’re interested in, and practice approaching grading, revisions, and personalized instruction more creatively. Lean on support where you can, whether that’s by having more peer workshops, helping students find tutoring, or encouraging other teachers in your school to require more writing—or all three!


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