Teaching the Craft of Writing

Date 

July 17, 2019

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Summer is often a period of reflection for teachers. It may be a time to read an inspiring professional book and perhaps jot down a few thoughts that might become the seed for a new approach to use in the fall.

If teaching students to write is a growth area for you or your school, I humbly offer a simple idea for your summer reflection: For a moment, forget about all the classroom-ready activities and resources that teachers often seek out to develop student writing skills and instead consider teaching writing as a craft.

Before you panic, please know I’m not suggesting that you stop using powerful classroom activities and mini-lessons.

Rather, I’m proposing a pause so you can reflect on the best combination of strategies to use.

The Effort Behind Looking Effortless

Imagine a ballerina taking the stage, immersing us in a flowing combination of music and motion. As you watch, you feel the tug of emotion implicit in her dance. Perhaps her partner lingers on the edge of the stage, watching or turning from her in response to her approach (her argument, if you will). When he joins in, there is development. The dance has a beginning, middle and end, which ultimately moves us.

This is craft—a gorgeous dance that looks effortless.

Yet the dancers developed their craft through practice and prior performances—the repeated planning, execution, analysis and revision of this work commenced months earlier.

The dance is comprised of individual moves and skills, but the result is only a small part of the craft the dancers developed.

Good writing is similar. The final product is really not a road map for how to achieve high levels of craft. Rather, it is an exemplar that displays the refinement of skills writers have learned as they grow into their work.

Beyond “Standardization, Efficiency and Proficiency”

As John Warner wrote in Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities (one of those great professional books you might want to read this summer), “to write is to struggle … Rather than standardization, efficiency and proficiency, we should be concerned with choice, curiosity, risk and the building of a critical sensibility.”

Along those lines, to teach students the craft of writing, you don’t ask them to simply memorize someone else’s strategies or the criteria in a scoring rubric; students must learn how to negotiate the myriad writing challenges they will face on their own, without always relying on a teacher-provided formula.

The Importance of Drafts—and the Journey

What writing as craft suggests to me is a lot more focus on discussing and then revising drafts than might be happening in classrooms focused on mini-lessons. There are countless ways to teach the craft of writing, but here are some that immediately come to mind.

First, teachers who understand craft spend a lot of classroom time discussing their students’ drafts with the whole class, using them as examples and getting students to discuss how to improve them. They ask students what they want to express or explain (the purpose); what they want to produce (the task); and whom they are trying to persuade, educate or inspire (the audience). If students cannot answer these questions, there’s a learning opportunity to be had.

Second, good writing teachers discuss exemplary published texts with students, then ask them to emulate effective strategies employed by the authors in their own drafts. When tied to the use of a scoring rubric that establishes common expectations and language for quality, this practice is extremely effective.

Third, teachers who understand craft put their own drafts up on the screen and discuss them with students. This is an incredibly powerful way to teach, particularly when students are asked to suggest and implement improvements to the drafts.

(If you’re not yet comfortable modeling in your class, try writing your own responses to the prompts and assignments you give your students. You may learn a lot about their challenges.)

It’s the messy effort and missteps, as well as the persistence and instructive conversation to better understand how to put on the page what you’re trying to convey, that makes the craft of writing a journey with a destination in mind.

Try thinking about this idea over the summer—and how you feel about doing that kind of teaching—and let me know what you discover.

If you'd like to keep the conversation going, leave a comment below or contact Jacqueline Raphael directly. Read Jacqueline's previous blog posts, including Putting Reading and Writing Together for Struggling Students and Argument Writing as Dialogue in the Common Core.