The Art of Teaching Writing

Pirette McKamey on helping students believe that what they write really matters

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.

The first time I watched Pirette McKamey plan an English lesson for her 12th graders, in 2017, the language she used reminded me of a theater director working on a play. Sitting in her office, on the second floor of San Francisco’s Mission High School, she talked about the lesson’s overall story; its emotional impact, rhythm, pacing, and cohesion; and the importance of smooth transitions from one activity to the next.

She explained that the rhythm of the class comes from alternating short lectures, reading, writing, individual practice, and group work. Pacing means not spending too much time or too little on any activity. Both rhythm and pacing would be key to maintaining high engagement with the readings and three writing assignments she had ready for her lesson that day.

McKamey is now a first-year principal at Mission High, but in her 27 years of full-time teaching, she learned a lot about directing an inspiring lesson. In her English classes, students wrote every day. Their final assignment was a 10-page research paper on a topic they chose themselves. The subjects of these papers—ranging from the causes of high suicide rates among South Korean students to intergenerational trauma in Black communities—reflected the full diversity of the school. Mission has about a thousand students, holding 47 different passports. Close to 40 percent are learning English.

During our conversation on December 18, 2018, which has been edited for length and clarity, I asked McKamey to reflect on some of the most important lessons she’s learned about teaching writing.

Rizga: You spend a great deal of time highlighting the importance of honesty in good writing. What does authentic writing mean to you, and how do you teach it?

McKamey: That is my favorite part about teaching students to write: getting them to believe that what they have to say is the most beautiful and the most interesting thing in the world to read. But the first level is helping them uncover what they want to say, not just the surface stuff. That takes a lot of daily writing, a lot of thinking, and a lot of feedback that doesn’t shut that process down.

In my class, students write every day. I read a lot about writing and how the brain works, and they often say that the best teachers of writing are people who write themselves. And I write. I think the reason might be that we realize how difficult it really is—and how it’s not just a matter of discipline, or being skilled and trained. It’s a matter of courage and boldness. You have to believe that what you write matters.

Rizga: Could you describe the most essential steps to make that happen?

First of all, you ask questions that make students want to think about things, and you help them consider those questions from different points of view. And then when they write something, you respond to what is compelling in the writing—you don’t correct them yet. You just say, This is so interesting. I never thought of it that way. I know what you mean.

The next step is to have them read good writing. It doesn’t have to be heavy, and the pieces don’t have to be long, but they have to be compelling.

And then we have to learn a vocabulary for talking about why these pieces of writing are compelling. Students first start to say things not about the craft, but about content: I love what the author had to say; I was so moved; I really felt him;I really understood her. And then we get at: How did the author do that? How do you get all of your complex thinking, all of your wonderful musings out on paper in a way that’s understandable by another person? It’s not about remediating or saying, “Be more simple.” It’s about saying, “Please keep your complexity—but how can you then communicate that complexity in the most effective way?”

Rizga: One subtle but powerful practice I’ve seen you use to promote students’ confidence is using their exact words, rather than paraphrasing them, as you put their reflections on the board. What’s the intention here?

McKamey: I think the bigger picture is that when I look at them I see true intellectuals. I know they are going to tell me something I’ve never heard in my life before, or that they will say something in a way I’ve never heard before. I know I’m the teacher, and I know that I know more than most of them—probably all of them—but we are a community, and we are really enriched by each other. Not paraphrasing them comes naturally, then. They meant what they said, and they said it perfectly. There is no need for me to take over their words and change them to mine.

It’s the same thing in receiving their work. Every time students write something, they mean something. My job as the teacher is to figure out what they mean. It’s not to say that they didn’t mean it or that they didn’t do it well enough. It’s to say, What are you trying to say to me?

Rizga: What is the hardest part about feedback?

McKamey: The hardest part is critical feedback: how to say something in the right way that moves them forward, and how to pick the right thing. No piece of writing is ever finished. There is always something else to be done with it. At its best, this process becomes an intellectual co-creation between a teacher and a student—rather than defaulting to a process of correction, in which students often feel encouraged to copy their teacher’s thinking and writing.

When I started teaching, I thought love for students was to write all over their papers and say everything that was great and everything that could be improved. I spent hours and hours and hours doing it. And then they wouldn’t change. Nothing got better. And I thought, What is wrong with these little people that they can’t just read all of my comments and do it better?

I remember this one young man, almost 30 years ago. He was a very serious student, yet he kept doing the same things in his writing, and I kept commenting on them on paper. And finally, I passed the paper back to him, and I said, “What is your problem? Why don’t you do this?” And he goes, “Oh, that’s what you wanted me to do?” And then I just saw the complete limitations of writing comments on paper. They have some value, but that is just one aspect of the back-and-forth between a teacher and student. There’s also honoring their work by reading it to the class, frequently talking to them about their work, learning to see what they did in their work—instead of just focusing on what they didn’t do. Just so many things.

Rizga: Can you think of any other students who have taught you important things about your teaching?

McKamey: I remember early in my career, I was standing there reading a student’s writing. And the girl goes, “Give me back that paper. I can’t stand the faces you make when you read my papers.” I’ve been told before that I look really intense when I’m reading, so the students interpreted that as criticism. So, I changed my face. I try to keep it neutral or smiling when I read.

I also used to give my sixth and seventh graders surveys asking, “How is the course going?” And I remember, a couple of students said, “You are sarcastic, and we don’t like it.” That’s when I made the connection that teaching wasn’t about me having my personality. It’s a profession. So I stopped being sarcastic and started cultivating a classroom persona that met my students’ needs. But that doesn’t mean I’m false. It just means that’s another side of me.

Rizga: You founded Mission High School’s Anti-Racist Teaching Committee. What does that mean in your classroom?

McKamey: For me, being an anti-racist teacher is about making sure that I’m doing all that it takes to educate all of the students in front of me, including African American and Latino students and English learners. It’s about really reflecting on my practice and changing things over time.

Rizga: Sometimes, I hear resistance from teachers. They might say, “What I’m doing is working for high-achieving students,” and in most classrooms, that would be mostly white and Asian American students. “Why should I be lowering my standards and changing my practice for other students?”

McKamey: Pretend for a minute that you are a doctor and your frame for administering medicine is based on white middle-class patients, and you are not meeting the needs of your low-income, African American patients. And then you say, “Oh, well. I’m not lowering my standards to meet the needs of those patients.” It’s ludicrous to think that doing something differently, so that you are more efficacious in your practice, could have anything to do with lowering standards. The task is to educate all students in front of me. I know that I’m becoming better and not lowering my standards, because it takes everything I have. It takes my intellect. It takes my creativity. It takes my heart. It takes my stamina. Everything I have. That’s how I know I’m on the right path.

Rizga: You also work as a coach and mentor to other teachers. What type of support do teachers typically need when they struggle to reach African American students?

McKamey: The support is not specific to African American students. The support is about good teaching, because that’s the belief behind anti-racist teaching. If you pay attention to the information that African American students are giving you, you will become a better teacher to all of your students. It’s almost like frogs: The frogs are the first ones in a polluted environment to die, so the frogs give us information about how toxic an environment is. African American students are the most vulnerable students in the classroom. They give us the first level of information about our teaching.

A lot of times, the first thing a teacher has to learn is that the students have to walk away thinking, I’m so smart—not thinking, That teacher is so smart.

I think one of the things that’s at the core of this is knowing what you want them to produce. I have something in mind—a paper, an exam, a performance. I know what quality looks like, and they are going to produce quality work. I don’t want them to just get something done. I want them to be proud of it.

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.