I knew -- I know -- that my approach to teaching writing works.
When I say “works,” I don’t mean to imply that every student is transformed or I bat a thousand when it comes to results meeting my intentions, but I know that my approach is grounded in something meaningful, that it is consistent and pedagogically sound. I know why I’m doing what I’m doing, and I know how to make adjustments in my approach depending on the outcomes.
I wrote my approach into The Writer’s Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing. It is my best effort at embodying what I believe works into a book that others can use.
I would be lying if I said I was 100 percent confident that others could take The Writer’s Practice and find the same connection. I hoped for it, but I wasn’t sure. Who could ever be sure?
It’s been just over a year since the book’s release, and I’m happy to share some evidence that it can work for others. This is going to read like a self-congratulatory infomercial for my own book, but I swear that I have a larger point that this anecdote will illustrate.
As coincidence would have it, my very longest-standing friend (we carpooled to nursery school together), a guy named Stephen Weber, runs a tutoring company in Chicago. His company, Educational Endeavors, provides a variety of services -- tutoring, test prep, executive function -- and one of the things he does is put on weeklong seminars for Chicago Public Schools students who are matriculating from eighth to ninth grade.
He used The Writer’s Practice in his seminar, doing one activity per day for five days, essentially 75 minutes of writing instruction per day for a week.
At the end of the week, using a prompt from the book, he asked the students the same thing I ask my students at the end of the semester: “Who are you (now) as a writer?”
Here are some things the students said:
My attitudes toward writing have changed. I used to view writing as something stressful, but now I have learned steps to make it easier. My writing process has also altered. I use (sic) to just start writing, but now I have learned that prewriting plays a crucial role.
I honestly didn’t think I would have as much fun writing this week, but the truth is, I loved it. [This week] brought out a writer inside me I didn’t know was there in the first place. I have written for myself before, but when I was writing this week, I just didn’t want to stop. I was an untamable beast. This past week truly showed me how fun and enjoyable writing can be.
My attitude towards writing has always been that I love it. I haven’t enjoyed all of the writing I’ve been doing in my life, though. I did the same analytical essay for two years, seventh and eighth grade. After a while, it got repetitive. However, this week I feel like the prompts have given me the chance to put my opinion in my writing, which in turn made my experience more enjoyable. I’ve become more aware of the writing process that I have, and I even made a few changes to ensure that I am writing the best I can.
There are 20 or so more where these came from. Reader, I am here to tell you that they brought tears to my eyes. These are not-quite ninth graders in what is supposedly one of the worst school systems in the country, and they are awake and alive to the possibilities of writing. I want to know, what more could we ask for?
Here is my larger point. If you want to teach more effectively, and with greater personal happiness, listen to what students are both explicitly and implicitly telling you with their work, their attitudes, their actions.
The origins of The Writer’s Practice and Why They Can’t Write were in the fact that when I offered a hypothetical A in exchange for never attending the class and not doing any work, 80 percent would have taken that bargain.
Something had gone wrong, and I wanted to figure out how to make it right.
Students are no more defective than any other human, which is to say they are complex and contradictory, just like everyone else, but they can also be motivated/passionate/driven. If they are acting in ways that seem inexplicable or counterproductive (“Sure, I’ll take the A, but learn nothing -- great!”), there is likely some root cause. That cause can become known.
Once a cause is known, it can be addressed. This is where the fun starts as you work the problem, iterating semester after semester. One of the reasons I persisted in my contingent position for so long was the deep pleasure of working the problem.
It was a foolhardy goal in many ways. I had no credentials as a writing pedagogue. I do not have a degree in rhetoric and composition. I’m a career contingent instructor without academic pedigree of any kind.
But I can now say with confidence, it works.