The Best Writing Teachers Are Writers Themselves

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It takes more than a good grasp of grammar to teach students the true power of the written word.

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I was a closet writer from an early age. In the second grade I wrote a poem for my classmate Patrick O'Neal, who sat alone everyday on the playground, but I didn't give it to him. A few years later, I started writing a book that featured a thinly disguised amalgam of Laura Ingalls Wilder and myself making do in a little house on the prairie. In middle school, I documented love triangles and made lists of my first, second, and third-best friends in a diary that locked. My secrets were safe, and so was my budding desire to be a writer.

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Year after year in school, I dutifully underlined subjects and circled verbs on grammar worksheets. I wrote answers to the study questions at the end of the chapter and learned how to nail the five-paragraph essay my junior year in high school. (I haven't been asked to write another one since, even in college.)

In school, writing was a closed circuit. The teacher gave an assignment, I responded, then she passed it back with a letter grade at the top of the page. I was good at school, but none of it felt like writing. Writing was what I did on my own time. I composed poetry and song lyrics in secret and hid my journal in my sock drawer when I heard footsteps in the hall.

So Kelly Ford's Senior English class came as a surprise.

Even in 1982 at the age of 17, I knew that something was different. For starters, we wrote every single day. No grammar worksheets in Kelly's class and no study questions either. Instead, his favorite drill went like this: Enter the room. Grab your journal. Read the prompt on the chalkboard, and start writing. Give me 10 full minutes without stopping. No excuses.

Sharing what we wrote was an important drill, too. We gave feedback to one another in writing groups so we could improve our work. I learned that Marlon, the calf roper who sat behind me in sixth period, could also turn a phrase because when Marlon's poetry moved him, Kelly thought we should hear it out loud, too.

Some assignments felt familiar, like my research paper on the Wars of the Roses and the essay analyzing the symbolism of the albatross in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." But for the first time ever, I also wrote poetry and short stories in class. I wrote a personal essay about my Aunt Eunice whose sure hands had fed me fish and cornbread every summer of life. I described how bony her fingers looked that Christmas before she died, how they opened and closed like restless birds on the quilt draped across her lap. I wrote song lyrics intended to keep my boyfriend from abandoning me when we left for different colleges in the fall. (It worked. We've been married for 27 years.)

I analyzed. I narrated. I wooed. This was school, and I was writing. The circuit was no longer closed.

After college, I became an English teacher myself, and about three years into my career, I joined a National Writing Project site at the University of Oklahoma and discovered how and why Kelly Ford's class had been so different. Like Kelly had in 1975, I participated in the Oklahoma Writing Project's summer institute in 1991, where I honed my skills as a writing teacher, grew as a teacher leader, and gave myself permission to be a writer once again.

I was relieved at the end of the summer to learn that the institute was not the end of the best professional development I had ever experienced. Rather, I had become a member of the nation's only professional development network devoted to improving the teaching of writing, the National Writing Project (NWP). Founded in the Bay Area in 1974, NWP now has close to 200 sites nationwide, including the one I direct at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Each site hosts an annual summer institute like the one Kelly and I attended and provides professional development for area teachers. Many sites offer writing programs for students and communities as well.

I was fortunate to gain access to a community of dynamic teachers so early in my career. But my students were the ultimate beneficiaries, for the mantra that guided Kelly Ford's practice once again proved true in mine: The best writing teachers are writers themselves. Why? Because we know the writing process inside out, we can support our students' work in authentic ways.

As a parent whose children have been taught by NWP teachers, I know firsthand that these students are the lucky ones, for they see themselves as writers, too. With that identity comes the bonus of scoring better on standardized tests than students who haven't been taught by writing teachers. More importantly, though, they learn that writing is hard, joyful, worthwhile work that is meant to be shared with others.

One might imagine that the deeply inventive practice I experienced as Kelly Ford's student is no longer possible today. It's true that we are not immune to mandates like No Child Behind and the steady stream of scripted curricula and standardized tests that have spun out of it. Like the students at New Dorp High School, our students must perform well on tests like the Regent's Exam, too, or else. Many NWP teachers work in some of the toughest schools in the nation, schools that could also use a writing revolution. More often than not, the "solution" has been to tighten the screws so that the cogs that are our students and teachers will keep the wheel on turning.

The solution has been to scrap the poetry, the journals, and the peer writing groups. Dust off the grammar books because it's time to get back to the basics. It's time to teach to the test.

After all, the wholesale revision of the writing curriculum is the only way to bring about a writing revolution, right? At first glance, it appears to be just the thing that worked at New Dorp, the high school profiled in the latest issue of The Atlantic, where students have made undeniably remarkable gains in passing the Regents Exam and are graduating in record numbers compared to recent years.

It's true that New Dorp High School made drastic changes, replacing the old curriculum with a new focus on a single genre, argumentative writing, that is also emphasized on the Regents Exam. As a result of these efforts, it would be surprising if students didn't improve at least slightly on the Regents Exam. Yet many schools have viewed curricular changes as the silver bullet that will raise test scores and have not experienced such unprecedented results. A closer look reveals that the most important investment Deirdre DeAngelis, the school's principal, made was not in a new curriculum, but in teachers.

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Cindy O'Donnell-Allen

Cindy O'Donnell-Allen is the chair of the English education program at Colorado State University.

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