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meat-and-potatoes (mēt ănd pǝtā′tōs) adj. fundamental; down-to-earth; basic

As a classroom teacher and instructional reading/language arts coach for thirty years, I attended countless writing workshops where programs were touted as “research based,” “data driven,” and “best practices.” And every time I’d listen to those presentations, I couldn’t help but wonder why, if the programs were so great, did school districts continue to get rid of them and buy new ones every few years.

Okay, confession time. I used to promote similar products. I inherited the job when I became an instructional coach. The training modules were fed to me, and I would regurgitate them, word for word.

But something happened at a workshop I was asked to lead that affected me so deeply, it became the catalyst for my creating this blog.

I had followed every step of the scripted presentation, beginning with the requisite intros and icebreakers (or time wasters, as I prefer to call them). After that, I divided the teachers into groups and had them appoint a scribe, a timekeeper, and a speaker. Among their assignments was to jigsaw read and discuss a long article about writing. Another was to draw a picture of the neighborhood where they grew up and write about an event that took place there. I also invited the groups to participate in silly role-playing games and other activities that had everyone laughing and joking. In between, I projected PowerPoint slides on the screen that dealt with trends in education, along with theories on how children learn.

When the workshop was over, some teachers thanked me, but most disappeared like thieves in the night. They’d gotten their mandatory professional development hours, so adios, muchacho!

While I was gathering my things, one teacher walked up to me, looking perplexed. She hesitated for a moment, then said, “Excuse me, but how do you really teach writing?”

Undoubtedly, you’ve heard of aha! moments. Well, that was a huh? moment for me. I didn’t know what to say. After all, I had just spent the past seven hours talking about writing.

Yet I shouldn’t have been surprised by the teacher’s question. She had a valid concern. Unfortunately, I wasn’t in a position where I could address it truthfully. Otherwise I might have told her, “The reason you’re still not sure how to teach writing…is ’cause this program sucks!”

By then, I’d had several young adult novels published. Plus I’d spent years studying and honing my craft in my quest to become an author. So I had a strong enough grasp of the writing process to know that the information I had presented was not going to help the teacher turn her students into successful writers. But my job was to sell the program the district had purchased, not to offer my professional opinions.

Nevertheless I left the building that afternoon troubled by the realization that after an entire day of training, neither the confused teacher, nor anyone else at that workshop, had gained new insights on how to teach writing. The PowerPoint slides, the group activities, the laughing and joking would be a forgotten memory by the time the participants returned to their campuses.

And what do you suppose happened to those writing articles I handed out? My guess is that some of them ended in the trunks of the teachers’ cars where they joined other educational materials abandoned there. A few were buried in filing cabinets, rarely to be seen again. The rest were tossed into what is known euphemistically in the teaching profession as File 13 (if you know what I mean, and I think you do).

In the years that followed, the teacher’s words would play sporadically in my head, like a pesky Disney song you can’t get rid of: How do you really teach writing?

This blog is my attempt to answer her question, as well as yours, if you’ve wondered the same thing but don’t know who to ask. I titled it A Meat & Potatoes Approach to Teaching Writing because that’s exactly what it is—a plain-language description of the writing process and how to teach it. No gimmicks. No buzzwords. No convoluted theories. Just some practical, doable ideas you can use in your classroom and see immediate, positive results.

Please check this blog regularly for my latest posts.