Friday, November 4, 2016

Three Tips for Writing Teachers

Recently, a teacher tweeted me with this question:

When kids revise, their changes may not be improvements. How can we lead them to make their manuscripts better?

That’s a great question, but it’s not something that can be answered in 140 characters. And in fact, I’m not sure there’s an answer—at least not one teachers will like—at all.

I think that the only honest answer is that revision is messy, and sometimes our attempts to re-envision our writing are complete and utter failures. That’s why writing is hard.

As I describe in this Revision Timeline, creating the picture book No Monkeys, No Chocolate was a 10-year journey. When I share this timeline with students, they always ask the same question: “Does it always take so long to write a book?”

No, it doesn’t. But for most of the picture books I write, the journey from inspiration to publication is far longer than most people expect. Here are some stats:

Can an Aardvark Bark? (coming in 2017),  7 years

Feathers: Not Just for Flying,  8 years

Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs (coming in 2018),  7 years

A Place for Butterflies,  5 years

Summertime Sleep (coming in 2019),  8 years
Under the Snow,  5 years

For each of these manuscripts, I wrote draft after draft after draft. And I openly admit that some of those drafts were worse than the ones that came before them.

When it comes to writing, not every attempt is an improvement. Not every idea pans out, and you know what, that’s okay. It’s part of the process. Like I said, writing is hard.

But it’s also important. For more and more people, being able to clearly express information and ideas in writing is a critical job skill. And that’s why I think the best thing a writing teacher can do is:

Be a Coach
A good coach knows how to help players improve by giving them the right advice at the right moment. Writing teachers can do this by building a classroom collection of mentor texts and handing students titles that will address specific writing elements that they are struggling with.

For nonfiction, the collection should include books with:
—various formats and text structures
—different writing styles (narrative and expository)
—different voices (lyrical, lively, and various options in between)
—various points of view (first, second, and third)
—strong verbs
—rich use of language devices (alliteration, onomatopoeia, similes and metaphors, etc.)

Coaches also teach strategies by going over past games play by play. Writing teachers can use old student work to showcase how those writers chose a clever format or used voice well or included strong verbs.

Be a Role Model
Time and again, when I do writing workshops in schools, I see that the classes that do the best are the ones where the teacher participates. She pays attention to what I’m saying. She takes notes. She asks questions. And most importantly, she writes right alongside her students.

As she writes, she verbalizes the things that are challenging her. She asks her students for advice and suggestions. She encourages them to consult with one another. She shows them that writing is a struggle for everyone, and yet, it’s something that is worthy of her time—and theirs.

Be a Cheerleader
When students feel frustrated or defeated, writing teachers can spur kids on. They can encourage young writers to keep trying by sharing examples of their own setbacks and successes. They can also share the trials and tribulations that professional writers discuss on their blogs or social media. When students see that the adults around them struggle with writing, that it's just part of the process, they can learn to move past the frustration they feel and experience their own successes.

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