Coaching Writing

From the Cross Country Course to the Classroom

I am a runner. God knows I am nothing like I once was, but after all these years I still have the muscle memory. My body knows exactly what to do when I break into a jog and start striding out. However, due to injury, limitations, and other constraints, I have allowed myself to become complacent. I find that I don’t set goals or try to achieve new levels. However, I coach high school cross country runners, and every so often I will jump into a workout just to see how long I can hang with them. My lungs will start burning, my muscles will start aching, and the next day I wake up sore, but sore and happy. I weirdly embrace that feeling knowing that I pushed boundaries and asked something more of my body than what it wanted to do at that time.

As a coach it is my job to help my athletes experience as many of these moments as possible, each one adding to another causing overall growth as a distance runner. This growth can come in many forms — increased stamina, personal records, an achieved placement on the varsity team. Who am I to tell my runners which success is better than the other? Of course there is the standard success perceived from those on the outside: Were you on the varsity team? Did you win? Did you make it to the state meet? But truly and honestly, no matter what it looks like, they are all successes in their own way.

So I take this to the classroom. I am a teacher. An English teacher. I have spent the past several weeks grappling with the idea of what it should look like when a student has advanced their writing. It’s a slippery concept because much like the individual successes in cross country, students will have various successes in their writing skills. One student may be able to use descriptive language to move their reader to emotion, whether it be laughter or tears. Another student may finally complete a story on their own accord. And that one student who I can never get to write anything down might finally produce a full paragraph. And on and on and on. Education has given us standards and rubrics that will tell us what success is supposed to look like, but just like on my cross country team, there is no way every single one of my students will achieve traditional success at that level.

So how do I structure my classroom so that my teaching mimics my successful coaching style? How do I know when a student finishes a bout of writing and they have that “sore” feeling that comes from pushing themselves beyond their comfort zone, albeit mentally and hopefully not physically? And if I do know it, how do I assess it? Shouldn’t that feeling be rewarded, no matter the fact that there are misspelled words and that certain conventions of grammar may have been horribly abused? Because if it’s not rewarded, why would students want to put themselves out there to have that same feeling again? What is the benefit of students pushing themselves to do something they have never done before if the end result is exactly what it would have been had they taken it easy and played it safe?

So when thinking how to assess writing in my classroom, I must think about how I get my students across the finish line with their writing pieces so they can look back and reflect upon the course they just ran. Find a way for them to assess themselves and compare to previous experiences, checking if they did all that they could have done and pushed at all the right places. More so, find a way to help them identify if they backed off once they hit a certain level of pain and just coasted to the end point. If I can get my English students to talk about writing the way my cross country athletes talk about running, I will have achieved the highest level of writing assessment I could ever dream for my classroom.

Kimberly Leal Tortomasi

Written by


GMWP: Greater Madison Writing Project

Teacher as Artist, Teacher as Researcher, Teacher as Writer, Teacher as Teacher of Writing

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