Teaching Beliefs

Madison WI-May 2015

The enthusiastic honor student sits down with me for a writing conference: “What would you like to work on,” I ask.

“I don’t know, improve my writing,” she replies.

Seeing an opportunity for the best kind of writing workshop, I say, “Listen, your piece is good: it’s organized, well-reasoned, has lots of convincing evidence, and I feel confident that you understand how to write an analytic piece and you understand the play Hamlet: you have earned an A on this paper.”

“Okaaaay . . .”

“It’s the end of the year, so, if you have things you need to work on in other subjects, I will give you time for them because you’ve already earned an A. But if you really want to improve your writing, then let’s look at your piece, sentence by sentence.”

Forty-five minutes later, we finish revising a single paragraph and the student looks at me again: “Is this normal?”

Madison WI-May 2016

This particular question set me on my current journey exploring what I really believe about teaching and learning, forcing me to articulate and challenge some of my long-held assumptions along the way to, well, I’m not sure yet. But, I have learned two key lessons so far:

Learning writing is very difficult.

When I asked the student what she meant by her question, she explained that she had never revised a piece of writing to this extent and she wondered whether it is “normal” for writing to be this difficult. From writers to cognitive scientists, everyone seems to agree that literacy is very challenging for the human brain. I think that the more I know about the specific reasons writing is difficult, the more I may be able to shape my classroom to assist rather than hinder my students’ brain work.

Learning writing is like a cognitive apprenticeship.

I had lectured this student’s entire class on the importance of examining the subject and verb, yet sitting with the student, it was apparent that I had taught her this lesson because she could recite my main points back to her, but she didn’t know how to apply it. When I stopped teaching her the lesson and helped her practice, offering timely suggestions and corrections, she started learning. I think of writing as a vital cognitive tool for every thinking person, and the more I can ask these apprentices to practice and offer appropriately timed feedback, the better students will develop their craft.

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In this blog, I will share steps along my journey to incorporate these lessons into my own teaching and classroom.