The longer I teach, the simpler my teaching becomes. I don't mean that what I ask of kids is simplistic or watered-down or even—not very often, anyway—easy. I mean my thinking about teaching has grown less cluttered. Some of the questions of theory and pedagogy that once kept me awake at night feel contrived and beside the point—for example, how to conduct a writing conference without directly teaching the writer, or whether correcting kids' editorial errors doesn't embarrass them and hurt their feelings, or the big one: Is it even possible to teach someone how to be a good writer, or are good writers naturally gifted?
Time and experience have given me twin gifts as a teacher. I know what I can expect from my student writers, and I understand better than ever how to help them make good on my expectations. Some teaching decisions come so easily these days, I suspect that to an observer they might look like intuitions. But almost nothing I do that works is a function of intuition. When I'm teaching well, a quarter century of knowledge of writing, teaching, and learning propels me from point A to point B, from problem to solution—sometimes, if I'm cooking, to multiple solutions. The clutter of received theories and confused pedagogies has been replaced by a bracing sense of efficiency and productivity, qualities that, as a novice, I never thought to associated with good teaching.
So, these days I directly teach my students during our writing conferences. As an experienced adult, I sit down with less experienced children and make suggestions, give advice, demonstrate solutions, and collaborate with them on pieces of their writing when I think they need to see how something could work. Student writing submitted to me for editing is already so thoroughly hatched up by the writers, whose self-editing shows me what they've learned about making their writing conventional, that my copyediting is just another set of hatch marks. I correct every remaining error I find and confer with students about them a handful at a time, so that when a final copy goes public, it will do and be what a reader's eyes and mind expect—so it will show respect for readers and actually be read. Finally, I know I can, and often do, teach kids how to be good writers.
As a teacher of teachers of writing, I experienced a similar, gradual transformation as I wrestled with comparable issues of direction versus indirection in my approach. When writing for teachers, should I tell and show what I do in my classroom? Or is it more professional to present ideas about teaching, supply the sources that influenced my thinking, and invite teachers to imagine the pedagogy?
Teachers familiar with my writing, especially In the Middle (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1998), know which side I came down on. I gave away the blueprints to my classroom. I came to understand that sharing practical knowledge of the classroom is my responsibility as a classroom teacher who presumes to speak to other teachers. So I've shaped the descriptions of my practice as specifically as I can, with as much narrative structure as I can weave in, in hopes that teachers who come across my writing will be able to visualize my classroom, then visualize themselves behaving similarly with their own students.
Today I move between the course of study my kids described—the files of lessons and examples that I know, from their answers to my questions about helpful mini-lessons are likely to change kids' writing— and the pressing concerns that arise during my conferences with students in one day's writing workshop and are ripe to be addressed in the next day's mini-lesson.
For example, I know that by the second or third week of school, my students need to begin gathering ideas for memoirs that will resonate: narratives that capture and explore powerful moments in their lives, that help them know themselves and make sense of both who they are and who they're becoming. So an annual September mini-lesson revolves around a list of questions for memoirists that I hope will push kids' memoirs beyond The Time I Went to Funtown U.S.A.
But last fall on a Monday morning in early September I conferred with three seventh graders whose pieces were titled with labels—for example, "My Experience with Our Foreign Exchange Student, Alvaro." So titles became the subject of the Tuesday mini-lesson. I made transparencies of a poem by Erin, and we looked at how brainstorming at the end had helped her find an effective title. I showed examples of other students' experiences with brainstorming titles, then, as a group, we created a list of the qualities of good titles and techniques for creating one.
Students took notes on both mini-lessons in their writing handbooks, a method I learned from Linda Rief's book Seeking Diversity (Heinemann 1992). If I'm concentrated on imparting only useful information to my students in my mini-lessons, the information should survive the lesson in a usable form, one that writers can return to and tap throughout a year of writing workshop. Students bring spiral notebooks to the mini-lesson circle and record lessons chronologically, from discussions or by copying my notes from an overhead transparency or chart paper. Sometimes I organize and type clean, beautiful versions of the documents we create together, then photocopy a class set, trim them with a paper cutter so they can be affixed to pages of the handbooks without the edges sticking out, and circulate tape dispensers for students to attach the new documents to the pages of their handbooks. Students create and update tables of contents for the handbooks that allow them easy access to the help they need.
I've narrated the mini-lessons as scripts: straightforward invitations to teachers to try on and adapt my voice and experience. You can bet I thought long and hard about approaching mini-lessons in this fashion. The scripted lessons of DISTAR and other programmed instruction give me apoplexy: they take away teachers' professionalism and turn us into mere technicians, or, worse, puppets. But I also know how much I learn when I watch and hear a good teacher in action. When I'm lucky enough to observe Mary Ellen Giacobbe conduct a demonstration lesson with young writers, I take notes that create a script of her explanations and responses to kids, then debrief afterward with her about why she behaved as she did. Later, I read and reread the script of Mary Ellen's teaching, and her words, actions, and motivations that resonate for me gradually become part of my repertoire as a teacher. So the lessons I've scripted here are my best versions of how I choose to speak to kids about writing.
The qualities of good writing are complex and nuanced. But they can be named, and I'm convinced they can be taught. Of all the arts, writing should be among the most democratic: all one need is paper and a pen—and, I would suggest, a teacher or two along the way who work to make the intangible tangible, so every student might know the joy of writing well.