Teaching and Writing and What Drives Instruction (12-16-16)

Make the standards drive the instruction!

This has been the mantra ever since standards became the focus of “standards-based education reform.” The unforeseen (or perhaps intended?) consequence of standards driving the instruction is that textbooks companies have been very careful to show that their textbooks are “aligned” with the standards. In other words, in Language Arts, any given reading, writing, listening, or speaking activity in any given textbook or workbook is labeled with the standard or standards “covered” by that activity.

In other words, “Use our product, you don’t have to think; we’ll make sure you’re covering the standards.”

I have long thought that teaching is like writing, and writing is like teaching. I’ve met other teachers who agree with me. They both involve having an intention, paying attention to both big ideas and details, getting your audience’s attention, and watching the pacing of your delivery, among other things. The idea that teaching and writing are very much alike became even more vivid for me this week, and gave me new epiphanies about both.

On Monday, I was in a Language Arts PLC (that’s teacher-speak for a department meeting) where a presenter from our district, a teacher on assignment I have known for many years, was giving us insights about the scoring of the Florida Standards Assessment (FSA) writing test. This test is part of the Common Core State Standards’ “instructional shifts.” The “shift” in this case is to move students away from writing about their lives to asking students to “write to text.” Essentially, students read a few texts, usually non-fiction, and then write to a prompt using evidence from the texts. “You have now read three passages about the history of fence posts. Now write an argument stating whether fence posts have mostly changed or mostly stayed the same over the past 100 years using evidence from the texts.” This was not the real prompt, and I’m being a bit hyperbolic, but you get the idea.

As we considered papers at different levels of proficiency, here is the statement the presenter made that sparked my epiphany: Average papers were driven by the texts themselves; the student’s own ideas drove the high scoring papers. 

In other words, an average writer would simply make a claim based on the prompt (“Fence posts have mostly stayed the same for the past 100 years.”), and then plug in quotes from the texts. For example, they might write one paragraph for each text they read, and within each paragraph quoting one or two pieces of information from that essay.

A high-scoring writer read the texts, but brought some insight to the writing situation and had their own strong argument to make. They had their own opinion (despite David Coleman’s opinion that opinions don’t matter), and that strong sense of agency and purpose, even in the face of a set of texts and a prompt that didn’t necessarily interest them, is what drove the essay. That strong sense of purpose and agency allowed the students to take the almighty “text evidence” and bend it to their own purposes, synthesizing it and creating something readable out of a mundane writing task.

So in the best student writing, the texts they read didn’t drive the writing. The student and the student’s ideas drove the writing. That’s where good writing comes from: having a strong sense of purpose. If all we do is prompt students to death rather than giving them the chance to develop their own topics, that sense of purpose will never be there, and their writing, in addition to being mediocre, will also be nothing but a chore for them.

When students let the texts they read drive the writing, their writing turns falls flat. When students themselves drive the writing, even when writing “to text,” the writing “scores higher.”

I kept thinking about that idea, which is when I had my epiphany.

Writing is like teaching. Teaching is like writing.

When we tell teachers to let the standards and/or the textbook drive their teaching, we are limiting them to be average, or worse than average, just the way students who let the “texts” drive their writing are average, or worse.

Excellent writing is driven by the agency, intention, and vision of the writer, not by following formulas and writing primarily, or only, about other people’s ideas.

Excellent teaching is driven by the agency, intention, and vision of the teacher, not by following scripts or curriculum maps and teaching primarily, or only, from material you have been handed.

If we want our students to be excellent writers, we must encourage their agency, their autonomy, their sense of purpose as writers. When we take those things away, we don’t just damage their love of writing and their engagement; we damage the writing itself. We settle for mediocrity.

If we want to have excellent teachers, we must encourage their agency, their autonomy, their sense of purpose as teachers. When we take those things away from teachers, and I think we have been systematic about doing so for many years now, we don’t just damage their love of teaching and their engagement with their jobs; we damage the teaching itself. We settle for mediocrity.

I have had a strong sense of purpose and agency from the very beginning of my career 25 years ago, and despite everything, my sense of purpose has only grown over the years. Perhaps this is why I continue to feel so out of step the longer I teach. So many of the things I am asked to do, and so many of the ways I am asked to think, run counter to my true sense of purpose.

What drives my teaching? Many things: a desire to promote love of reading and writing; a mission to show students the power of words over our thoughts, our lives, each other, and the world around us; a calling to help students see the world differently and perhaps to lead better, richer lives than they might have without my class. One of my main missions is to invest in them as human beings. So many students seem to have no interests or passions, nothing they are curious about; many tell me they barely remember their own lives. I try to get them to see that writing and reading aren’t just terrible chores demanded of us by college and careers. Writing and reading don’t just enhance our lives; they don’t just change our lives. Writing and reading can very nearly give us our lives. Writing and reading help us hold onto memories, help us to reflect on the past and imagine the future, help us make decisions in the now, help us know who we are, and help us discover meaning in our lives that might not have been there without this essay or novel we read, that journal entry or poem we wrote.

If all that sounds too warm and fuzzy for some people, I would note that all of those concepts are grounded very firmly in the practical aspects of writing (having a central idea, carefully organizing your key ideas, having great details, writing with fluency and graceful sentences, and yes, proofreading) and reading (knowing what the author is saying, but also being able to react to and act on that message). I am motivated to strive for excellence in these elements, though, by the bigger-picture desires I listed above. I tell my students I want them to sound like real, published authors, not like student writers writing to a formula and jumping through hoops to get a grade.

I want to be a real teacher, not a teacher who teaches to a formula and jumps through hoops to get a satisfactory evaluation.

Writing is like teaching and teaching is like writing.

We can push “writing to text” on students and “teaching from standards and textbooks” on teachers if we want mediocre thinking, writing, and teaching that lets the text, textbook, or standards drive the instruction. But if we want excellence, we must invest in giving students a sense of purpose and agency in their own writing and learning, and teachers a sense of purpose and autonomy in their own teaching.

The systematic destruction of student autonomy in writing and teacher autonomy in the classroom doesn’t benefit anyone, except the companies that sell textbooks and standardized curricula to school systems. For those of you who care about test scores, destroying people’s autonomy doesn’t raise scores. I don’t care about test scores. I care about people. And destroying the autonomy of students and teachers, taking away their sense of agency and purpose, is not good for people, or for their writing, teaching, or learning.

Writing is like teaching. Teaching is like writing.

Lesson over.