Sheryl Hyten's Reflection

Two years ago, I was finishing my graduate work with Sam Houston State. One of my final courses included a course on teaching writing. In this course we were instructed to choose a book on writing instruction to read and report on.  I chose Write Like This by Kelly Gallagher.  In it, Gallagher echoes what was stated by Woods: model as a verb rather than a noun.  Gallagher also promotes the use of mentor texts with which students imitate writing techniques.  The following year I implemented these practices in my classroom.  The feedback from students was excellent. Many appreciated seeing me struggle with the writing process. They felt it very helpful to not only see the final, impressive piece of writing, but to also see how bad it was to begin with. It let them know that “it’s okay if the writing sucks at first.”  What I was less impressed with was the use of mentor texts. Asking students to read an example of a personal narrative, highlight what they thought was good about the piece, then write their own just didn’t produce the results I was hoping for.  I now realize what was missing: inquiry based writing, or the unit of study approach.

This approach takes what is great about Gallagher’s strategy and Jeff Anderson’s strategy and combines them to create an effective way to think about writing.  Anderson’s Everyday Editing has students look at great examples of sentences and notice things about the grammar. They then write the “rules” of grammar in their own words and write sentences that imitate the examples, following those rules.  This is what inquiry based writing does with genre.  It gives students something concrete to focus on for their own writing. The key, I believe, to implementing this successfully, will be modeling and practicing this act of “noticing” for and with the students before asking them to do this on their own.  Reading the chapter “Reading Like Writers” from Wondrous Words provided an example of what to look for when reading, which gave me, the teacher, a more concrete understanding of what reading like a writer looks like. It is something that become such second nature that we forget students do not know what it looks like and therefore we must be very clear in modeling this for them. While modeling can be scary (no one wants to “wing it” and risk looking dumb in front of students) it is also very rewarding for both the teacher and the student.  Students benefit from seeing teachers struggle. It lets them know that even the most intelligent people struggle from time to time, therefore struggling doesn’t make them unintelligent. It makes them human.  It also gives students a chance to see teachers being inspired. Not only do teachers learn and grow with their students, students get to see it happen. They get to see their teacher’s passion for learning as they watch the “ah-ha” moments occur. 

In completing the unit of study, I had a few of my own “ah-ha” moments.  For this assignment I chose satire as my genre. I love satire and thought I had a pretty firm grasp on the characteristics of the genre. I chose it not because I felt I needed to learn more about the genre but because I had never written a satire and thought it would be fun and challenging to try it. Here’s what I learned from completing this unit of study:

I didn’t know as much as I thought I did.

Most of my knowledge of satire came from essays such as those written by David Sedaris and Johnathan Swift.  By requiring multiple examples from multiple modes (essay, article, blog, journal) I was exposed to many more techniques and styles than I had been. It forced me to examine characteristics of satire I had not seen before.

Application is easier said than done.

As a teacher it seems easy enough to say, “Okay, now you do it.”  When students falter, it is hard to understand why. You gave them all the tools, the example to follow. How hard can it be? Very. Writing a satire of my own was difficult. Even with a list of characteristics sitting right in front of me, incorporating them was a challenge. Some, such as sentence variety and elevated language, were easy. Others, such as humor and choosing the right point of view, were difficult. This is one of the reasons it is important to be writers if we teach writing. It can be easy to forget how difficult it is.

I cannot say with certainty how this approach will impact my students. Based on the success I’ve had with modeling and grammar imitation, I predict my students’ writing will improve.  I can say how this approach will impact my teaching. Each year I have done more and more to teach rather than assign. This approach is one more step in the right direction. I will model more and I will slow down. I will learn with my students and I will write with my students.