PRACTICE WHAT YOU TEACH
You can teach better with your example than by your words.—Reed Markham
A fourth-grade language arts teacher drew a picture of a hamburger on the dry-erase board to illustrate how to write a five-paragraph essay.
“The topic sentence lets the reader know what the essay will be about,” he told the class. “That’s why it comes first. Think of it like the top bun of a hamburger.” He wrote TOPIC SENTENCE on the top bun. Next, he asked, “Who can tell me what goes in the middle of a hamburger?”
“The meat!” several students shouted.
“That’s right,” the teacher said. “Those are the juicy parts. In an essay, the middle is made up of juicy details.” He wrote DETAILS in the center of the drawing. “Be sure to add three juicy details to your essay that tell about your topic sentence.” He picked up his pointing stick and aimed it at the picture. “Now I want you to notice how the bottom bun of the hamburger looks a lot like the top bun. The last paragraph of an essay is called the conclusion. It looks almost the same as the first paragraph, but not exactly.” He wrote CONCLUSION on the bottom bun. “When you write your conclusion, I want you to retell what your topic sentence is about, except use different words.”
The teacher then gave his students a prompt and told them to write an essay about it. “Think about the hamburger,” he urged, tapping the drawing with his pointing stick.
Judging by their work, I could tell that many students still had no idea how to write an essay. And if they had hamburgers on their minds, it might have been because lunchtime was nearing, and they were hungry.
I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say that writing is one of the least demonstrated skills taught in the classroom. Unlike reading, in which teachers model how to find the main idea, draw conclusions, use context clues, and read with prosody; or math, in which teachers show their students, step-by-step, how to solve a problem; writing is a subject that, more often than not, is explained, rather than demonstrated.
In my role as an instructional coach, and later, as a university student-teacher field supervisor, I visited hundreds of language arts classrooms, from kindergarten through eighth grade. Typically what I observed were teachers presenting “mini lessons” (when did the term mini lesson replace lesson?). A graphic organizer of some sort and maybe an anchor chart were usually included. In some classrooms, samples of published works or student compositions were projected on the screen to show what “good writing” looked like. But rarely did I see teachers use their own stories and essays as examples.
After listening to a teacher tell her students to write a personal narrative, I suggested to her that next time, she should write one and share it with the class. That way her students would have a better idea of how to write a personal narrative. Her immediate response was, “Oh, no. I can’t do that. I wouldn’t know what to write about.”
If we are to become effective teachers of writing, we must first see ourselves as writers.
You may have heard this advice before or something similar. But aren’t all teachers writers? What I mean is that you write just about every day—lesson plans, letters to parents, disciplinary referrals, texts, tweets, emails, social media posts—plus dozens of other forms of communication that involve putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.
Yet a number of language arts teachers have confided in me that writing is their weakness, and they aren’t sure how to teach it. Their lack of confidence likely stems from the fact that they are required to teach the two genres they seldom, if ever, practice writing: essays and narratives.
Most teachers haven’t written an essay since college. And how often does the average teacher sit down to write a story with a plot, characters, setting, conflict, and a resolution? It’s not surprising, then, that a lot of them use quirky, unconventional methods to teach writing.
One teacher gave her students a formula chart that looked something like this:
Paragraph One: A Hook
Paragraph Two: Dialogue
Paragraph Three: Onomatopoeia
Paragraph Four: Simile
I would have found it interesting to watch the teacher write a composition in front of her students using her formula chart. She didn’t, of course.
Another teacher assigned his students a story to write. Before they began, he said, “Remember, guys, be sure to include an introduction, three supporting paragraphs, and a conclusion.”
Apparently, the teacher had never written a story. Otherwise he would have known better than to tell his students to structure their stories that way.
Some teachers mask their lack of knowledge with the old adage: “We are not the sage on the stage. We are the guide on the side.” They contend that their teaching style is to be supporters and encouragers, rather than all-knowing experts.
My fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Strange, was a subscriber of that mindset. The thing I remember about her is that she loved all my stories. No matter what I wrote, she loved. Not only did she love my stories, she would invite me to stand in front of the classroom to read them aloud.
And each of my stories, without exception, began like this: One day, I was walking and walking and walking.
Then, following that incredibly captivating opening line, I would relate what I did on that day when I went walking and walking and walking.
Mrs. Strange would gush over my work. She’d tell me what a wonderful writer I was, and I couldn’t wait to return to my desk to crank out my next masterpiece.
Those were terrific times, and I have cherished memories of my beloved fourth-grade teacher.
Even so, when I look back at the year I spent in her classroom through an evaluative lens, I realize that while Mrs. Strange may have done more to motivate me to write than perhaps any teacher I had, she never taught me how to improve as a writer. Not once, for instance, did she show me different ways to begin a story. Nor did she demonstrate how I could better develop my ideas. She simply let me write whatever I wanted and applauded whatever I produced. To be fair, Mrs. Strange didn’t have a high-stakes standardized test hanging over her head like the Sword of Damocles.
Writing is hard. There’s no getting around it. Joseph Heller said, “Every writer I know has trouble writing.”
Shortening the amount of instruction with mini lessons for the sake of giving students more time to write, or using graphic organizers and anchor charts to explain the process, won’t necessarily create skilled writers. Neither will celebrating poorly written work. Mrs. Strange was my biggest cheerleader, but her praises didn’t make me a better writer—master teachers did.
If we are to become effective teachers of writing, we must first see ourselves as writers…of the genres we teach.
Teachers can’t expect to show their students how to write a story if they’ve never written one. Nor will they fully understand why their students are having difficulty developing their ideas unless they write essays, too, using the same prompts they assign.
A friend was nominated Teacher of the Year for her school district. One of the requirements on the application form was for her to submit an essay about her teaching experience. She told me, “I’ve been a language arts teacher for almost twenty years, but writing that essay was one of the toughest things I’ve had to do. And it hit me that this is what I put my kids through every day.”
There’s a story that’s been attributed to Mahatma Gandhi. I’m not sure of its validity, but the message behind it serves as a reminder that teachers should practice what they teach.
A young boy had become obsessed with consuming vast amounts of sugar. His mother tried to get him to stop, but he refused. Finally, she took him to meet Gandhi, the boy’s idol. She pleaded with the great leader to tell her son to quit his unhealthy habit.
Gandhi told the woman to bring her son back in two weeks, and he would speak to him then. The woman couldn’t understand why she had to wait so long. All she wanted was for Gandhi to tell her son not to eat too much sugar. At any rate, she complied.
Two weeks later, the woman returned with her son. Gandhi took the boy by the shoulders and looked him in the eyes. “Don’t eat so much sugar, young man,” he told him. “It isn’t good for you.”
The boy nodded and agreed to curtail his craving.
Puzzled, the woman asked Gandhi, “Why didn’t you tell him that two weeks ago when I first brought him?”
Gandhi replied, “As of two weeks ago, I was also eating a lot of sugar. I couldn’t advise your son to stop unless I could do it myself.”
Sometimes at my workshops I rhetorically pose the question: “Are you a teacher, or are you an assignment giver?”
After one session, a gentleman came up to me and said, “I’ve never had anyone ask me that question before. But as I was listening to you, it occurred to me that I’ve been more of an assignment giver than a teacher.”
I told him, “I’m glad you know the difference. Now go out and be a teacher.”