Perhaps the most important aspect of teaching that I have learned from reading In the Middle by Nancie Atwell is that all students need to write, and that writing needs to be based in content in a medium that is important to the student with real life application. Students are reluctant to tackle writing projects that they struggle to connect with on an individual level. If a student does not find some meaning or value in the writing they will avoid writing and will not improve much due to lack of practice.
As a first year teacher, I have come to understand student resistance to writing first hand. My own students are very hesitant to write about any topic, especially those that offer them little choice. I started the year having my students do an editing activity at the beginning of class followed by ten minutes of in class writing based on a writing prompt. At first, my students loved the activity and looked forward to sharing their editing corrections and writing with me. That love quickly faded and though my students were learning to identify and correct grammatical and spelling errors it became obvious that most simply waited for me to review the errors in class because they were receiving a grade on the work. This was the first of many mistakes I have made so far this year. I realize now that I should have never graded a warm-up activity in any way. Also, I should not have relied upon my warm-up activity to try and teach my students how to proofread and edit.
I wish I had read In the Middle prior to the beginning of my teaching career so that I could understand the importance of students finding meaning in what they write. I surfed the Internet for hours upon hours carefully choosing what I decided were great writing activities. Some prompts were flat out awesome while others failed miserably. What I had hoped to give my students was a direction for their own writing while requiring them to write a certain amount each week. The eight paragraphs I required had several students turning in twelve paragraph to ten pages. My students loved the freedom of the writing prompts at first, but like the editing activity it quickly lost value for some, particularly students that were stronger writing informational text than they were able to communicate in a creative platform. Eventually, several students were barely turning in four paragraphs a week. And again, I had made another mistake Atwell warns against, I was writing on my students’ papers. In all honesty, I was flooding my students writing with comments, critiques and corrections trying to provide them with as much feedback as I could. Students that made several errors kept making the same mistakes. Eventually, I discovered they were not reading anything that I had written. My students were simply checking the box and doing what they had to do; they were not learning anything.
At the semester break, I came to the conclusion that while I had to make my students engage in the act of writing outside of class along with major papers that teach the conventions and format of formal writing. I learned that I could only assess them on their out of classes writing based on quantity versus quality. At the same time I would not accept writing chalked full of errors. In the second week of the semester, many students have done enough work to receive an A for quarter and most of my struggling students are keeping on pace to have enough quality work turned in by the end of the quarter.
When students find meaning in their own writing by being allowed choices they will produce more work and eventually become more proficient writers.