How to Make Students Care About Writing

Pirette McKamey, a veteran English teacher, spent 30 years investigating what helps young people to view themselves as writers.

Olivia Locher
Editor’s Note: In 1988, a teacher most commonly had 15 years of experience. In recent years, that number is closer to just three years leading a classroom. The “On Teaching” series focuses on the wisdom of veteran teachers.

“I want to say something important about writing,” Pirette McKamey told 25 seniors in her English class at San Francisco’s Mission High School one fall afternoon in 2012. It’s incredibly hard, and always incomplete, she explained. “I’ve reread some of my essays 20 times and I still go, ‘I can’t believe I made this mistake or that mistake.’”

“I’m going to read a powerful essay as a model today,” said McKamey, who frequently shares her students’ work at the beginning of class as a way to showcase examples of effective and creative approaches to writing. She appreciated the student’s paper for “the heft of its content,” she told the class. “It also feels real. It was written with real engagement and honesty.”

In his essay, one of McKamey’s students wrote about his life ambitions, including his desire to become a musician. He compared his goals with those of two other individuals, chosen from the many real and fictional people the students had studied earlier that year in a five-week-long unit titled “Quests.” The vision behind this unit was rooted in McKamey’s observation that as teenagers approach adulthood, they want to examine how people from different eras and cultures have defined values such as success, goodness, and courage.

After McKamey finished reading the essay, students discussed what made it work—and which approaches they could employ in their own writing. As the discussion winded down, McKamey passed out a grammar worksheet.

Today, there is a growing consensus that students need strong writing skills to succeed in the workplace and to fully participate in society, but educators passionately disagree on the best ways to teach those skills. Some call for greater focus on the fundamentals of grammar: building vocabulary, identifying parts of speech, and mastering punctuation. Others believe that students need more opportunities to develop their writerly voice through creative expression and work that allows them to make connections between great literature and their personal lives.

Meanwhile, it appears that many of the methods seem to be falling short: Results from the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress suggest that only one in four 12th- and eighth-graders is meeting grade-level expectations in writing. In both tested grades, Latino and African American students scored lower than their peers in other racial and ethnic subgroups.

[The best writing teachers are writers themselves]

McKamey spent 29 years teaching in majority black and Latino schools. Over the years, she observed that many of her students came into her classroom believing that they “don’t like writing” or are “bad writers.” Since McKamey first started teaching at San Francisco’s Luther Burbank Middle School in 1989, she has been refining her own methods to help dispel these self-perceptions.

In McKamey’s classes, this means that students must feel compelled to write every day. But rather than prioritizing the mechanics of sentence structure or writing rooted in personal experiences, McKamey’s students work on a variety of exercises, including punctuation worksheets, argumentative and narrative essays, poetry, fiction, and long research papers. And while McKamey’s methods have evolved significantly since she first started teaching, her goal has remained the same: help every student develop a portfolio of high-quality work, which will serve as irrefutable evidence that they are capable of writing.

McKamey’s approach to writing instruction was shaped in part by her own experiences as a high-school student. One of just a handful of African American students at a Quaker boarding school in Pennsylvania, she noticed that most of her teachers would return papers with feedback that focused on what she did wrong. Whenever McKamey’s teachers praised her in the classroom, their feedback usually centered on her personality—rather than her intellectual contributions. Fran Bradley, McKamey’s high-school economics teacher, was an exception. When McKamey asked a question or made a comment, Bradley would engage in an enthusiastic discussion about McKamey’s ideas. He often read passages from her work in front of the class.

Even though McKamey’s parents always told her that she was intelligent and a good writer—despite her uneven grades—Bradley made an effort to cite evidence showing the benefits of McKamey’s intellectual contributions in her writing. When McKamey felt valued for her intellect, she explained, she was more willing to engage with the classwork—and she produced some of her strongest academic writing.

McKamey’s years as a teacher were deeply influenced by the research of the social psychologist Claude Steele. Best known for his studies on what researchers call the “stereotype threat,” Steele uncovered a unique form of distress that suppresses academic achievement in certain situations—during tests for African American students or math classes for women, for example—when an individual has the potential to confirm a negative stereotype about his or her social group. Steele’s research found that certain actions by teachers or mentors can dispel these crippling anxieties—they can signal in their feedback that they hold a student to high standards while also citing spots in the work where the student meets the challenge, for example.

Pablo Rodriguez—a former student of McKamey’s, who moved to the United States from Guatemala in 2009—still remembers McKamey’s feedback on his first essay in her class. He recalls the stars dotting the paper next to specific passages, and comments such as, “This is so interesting. I never thought of it this way,” or “I’m so intrigued by the point you are making here. Could you tell me more what you mean by that?”

In the past, most of Rodriguez’s writing earned D’s and C’s, and his papers would come back with a lot of grammar corrections, Rodriguez, who is now 23 and works as a youth counselor, told me. This made him feel hopeless about his ability to write. “Ms. McKamey taught me skills to deal with my weaknesses,” Rodriguez explained. “But she saw my strengths and it made me feel motivated. I wanted to write essays that would make Ms. McKamey love it more than anything she’s ever read, and I started spending hours at the library rewriting my papers.”

McKamey argues that the most important skill for a teacher is his or her ability to build trust with a student, which develops when students can sense that the educator is willing to hear their ideas, thoughts, and musings despite their challenges with grammar, low grades, or test scores in previous classes. This doesn’t mean that teachers need to cushion their feedback with fake praise, but it does mean, she thinks, that schools should help teachers develop skills to recognize what all students, including those who might be considered “low achieving,” do in their classrooms—instead of focusing mostly on what they don’t do or know.

[A educator witnessed school desegregation—and resegregation]

“Just because I struggle with some grammar rules doesn’t mean I can’t think deeply,” says one of McKamey’s former students, Ajanee Greene, who’s now 23 and a student at Jackson State University. In 2012, McKamey says, Greene wrote one of the strongest research papers McKamey had read in her classes, even though she had received a D in English at another school. Her 12-page final paper explored how the long history of racial exclusion contributed to violence in black communities—and affected her own family in San Francisco.

“The newspapers talk about the violence, but they don’t talk about a much bigger epidemic—the private pain of families who are left to live with the aftermath” of that violence, Greene, who became the first in her family to graduate from high school, wrote in 2012. “Personal, private, solitary pain is more terrifying than what anyone can inflict. The violence stays with families and becomes a part of their lives. Nobody feels the same and family relationships get strained. This causes more pain, and the cycle intensifies … The psychological damage destroys communities more than unemployment and poverty.”

For her paper, Greene had read and analyzed 20 articles and studies, interviewed neighbors, and added her own point of view. Before McKamey’s class, Greene had never written a research paper. “Ms. McKamey believed in me and then pushed me to work really, really hard,” Greene explained. She ultimately got an A- in McKamey’s class.

Drawing on the methods she uses in her English classes, McKamey has been coaching other teachers across all subjects for about a decade now. As part of this process, teachers meet in small groups where they review the work of middle-achieving students who have made a recent shift—went from chronic C’s to an A- in a recent essay, or analyzed passages more deeply, or showed intellectual engagement instead of just trying to get a good grade. Teachers then share practices that contributed to the growth in that student’s skills: verbal or written feedback, more explicit instruction in the components of academic writing, or reading student work in front of the class, among others.

Analyzing the work of middle-achieving students—rather than just failing or thriving ones—can significantly improve teachers’ effectiveness with underachieving students, McKamey argues. When teachers focus on the work of the lowest-achieving students, McKamey has observed that such conversations often turn into a space to blame the students, their parents, or other teachers, or they veer off into emotionally invasive discussions of a student’s private life. Focusing on middle-achieving students who showed recent improvement helps teachers dispel unrecognized stereotypes—and learn how to notice and build on their strengths. (One study found that white teachers graded black and Latino students more harshly for the same performance, accounting for as much as 22 percent of the achievement gap.)

“The task is to educate all students in front of me,” McKamey reflected. “There are so many opportunities to miss certain students: not see them, not hear them, shut them down. Despite years and years of teaching, there are times when the student is communicating something to me and I can’t hear their thinking at the moment, but I can’t ruin it. I have to keep it alive.”

This article is part of our project "On Teaching," which is supported by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Panta Rhea Foundation.