Celebrating The National Day on Writing: Bottom Lines Beliefs

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Today marks the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE)’s fifth annual National Day on Writing. October 20 is an officially recognized day, with the US Congress passing a resolution declaring it as such.  On this day, we are invited to celebrate the importance of writing, not just in school and for our students, but for ourselves. We are invited to turn our focus to writing, to consider the increasingly ubiquitous and powerful role it plays in our 21st century lives. Finally, we are invited to see this day as an opportunity for reflection, to consider our own practices as writing teachers and to ensure that our instruction matches what we believe to be essential about effective writing instruction.

On the National Day of Writing, it is worth considering the national conversation happening about writing. The Common Core State Standards have not been passed and implemented without a fair share of controversy. Certainly no new initiative is without limitations, but the Common Core Standards do have a few bright spots, particularly in regards to writing.

  1. The English Language Arts Standards emphasize reading and writing equally, unlike past initiatives, such as No Child Left Behind, in which reading was prioritized.
  2. The reading and writing standards are deeply connected, particularly Reading standards 4, 5, and 6  in which students are asked to analyze craft and structure of written texts. In other words, they are asked to “read like writers.”
  3. Writing process is emphasized, as is writing for multiple purposes and audiences across the school day.

As a teacher of writing, there are countless ways to celebrate this day. You might decide to read (or reread) a professional text to gain some fresh perspectives to integrate into your instruction. Favorites include Roy Peter Clark’s Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, Carl Anderson’s How’s it Going, Lucy Calkins’s The Art of Teaching Writing, and anything from Ralph Fletcher’s catalogue. Or, you might decide to do some of your own writing, perhaps in preparation for the next Slice of Life Story Challenge. You might revisit some of your own writing mentor texts, choosing excerpts that are so beautifully written that they move you to tears, and study the author’s craft. You might celebrate this day by simply writing a letter to a loved one or friend.

There is one way in particular you could celebrate this day that will have a lasting payoff for both you and your students. With so many new initiatives coming to the fore, and so many demands on teachers, not just in writing but in all subject areas, it can be difficult to adhere to our core beliefs about the teaching of writing. You might consider today as a call to revisit your bottom line essentials regarding writing instruction.

Before reading on, take a moment to compile your list. What do you believe are the essential components of a strong writing curriculum? (No really, take a moment to quickly jot your list…)

To help you reflect on your own bottom lines beliefs, here are a few ideas on writing instruction essentials. In A Guide to the Writing Workshop, part of the Units of Study in Opinion, Information, and Narrative Writing, Lucy Calkins shares essentials of writing instruction, which have been a fundamental part of the belief system and work of the Reading and Writing Project and of Lucy herself for many years.  Below is a paraphrased list of these essentials.

  1. Writing is a foundational skill and should be taught daily.
  2. Students need ample time to actually write during writing instructional periods.
  3. Students should write for real audiences and purposes, in a known genre.
  4. Writers write for meaning. They must have the opportunity to choose and write about subjects that matter to them.
  5. Students need explicit instruction in writing skills and strategies.
  6. Students need the opportunity to cycle through the writing process.
  7. In order to learn to write well, students need to study other writers.
  8. Students need clear goals and ongoing feedback.

Following are the NCTE beliefs about the teaching of writing, written in 2004 by an NCTE executive committee study group (Click here for a more thorough description):

  1. Everyone has the capacity to write, writing can be taught, and teachers can help students become better writers.
  2. People learn to write by writing.
  3. Writing is a process.
  4. Writing is a tool for thinking.
  5. Writing grows out of many different purposes.
  6. Conventions of finished and edited texts are important to readers and therefore to writers.
  7. Reading and writing are related.
  8. Writing has a complex relationship to talk.
  9. Literate practices are embedded in complicated social relationships.
  10. Composing occurs in different modalities and technologies.
  11. Assessment of writing involves complex, informed human judgement.

As further fodder for reflecting on your own bottom lines beliefs about writing instruction, you might consider the advice given by Douglas Reeves of the Leadership and Learning Center, based on Larry Ainsworth’s book Unwrapping the Standards. Reeves’s article, published by ACSD, offers tips to help teachers decide which standards to emphasize when bombarded with a multitude of standards that all seem to have high priority. These principles could certainly be helpful when making decisions about what to include in a writing curriculum.

Criteria for power standards (or essentials in a writing curriculum):

  1. They have leverage. Success in this skill or strategy will likely yield success in other areas of the curriculum.
  2. They endure. Students will be able to use the skill or strategy for years, not just to get through the rest of the semester or course.
  3. They are essential for the next level of learning. They are the skills and strategies that next year’s teachers (and beyond) most hope students bring with them.

Now, revisit your own list. Is there anything you would add or change? When you are finished with your revisions, share your list with someone you trust to follow up. Ask them to check in on you several times across the year to make sure you haven’t veered from your bottom lines beliefs. Post your list in a prominent place, and refer them as a guidepost when you are handed another mandate or another piece of curriculum that doesn’t feel quite right.

As a final exercise for today, consider for a moment the students whose stories you’ve helped to bring into the world, simply by providing the time and conditions in which their voices can be heard. With your caring, thoughtful instruction, you’ve let these students know that their words matter, and that they are capable of being really great writers. Consider now all of the future stories that will exist because you refused to give up your bottom line beliefs about writing instruction. Happy National Day on Writing, and all the best to all of you writing teachers out there, from all of us at Two Writing Teachers.