I love writing (obviously) and try to hook my eighth graders on it as well. I engage them in a variety of kinds of writing throughout the school year, from analytical textual analysis to a persuasive speech, complex research project, short story writing, and poetry. In May, through a Maryland Council for the Arts grant, I bring in a professional poet to do a Poetry Residence with my students, whereby each student creates at least five original poems and performs them to the wider school community in a poetry coffeehouse. My young adolescents are dying for the chance to express themselves creatively and very much want to have a written outlet to do so. Even my most rambunctious, reluctant, hyperactive boys bought into this process for the past two years and were eager to share their beautiful poetry with peers and other classes.
The challenge for me is often balancing enough opportunities for students to use creative writing with vitally important analytical writing and grammar instruction. Regardless of whether students want to or not, they must learn about the ever-hated appositives, run-on sentences, sentence clauses, parts of speech, usage, and all things grammar. Many current middle and high school curricula, including mine, do not stress grammar as much as they should. Instead of providing teachers with ideas for explicit grammar instruction, the lessons included are often random, surface-level, and disconnected from what else is being taught. I make it a point to start at the beginning and diagram sentences with students until they clearly understand what a subject, predicate, verb, noun, adjective, and adverb all are. It boggles my mind that my 14-year-old students -- even the most high-achieving ones -- give me baffled looks when asking them to know the parts of speech for their vocabulary words.
In addition to extensive grammar and vocabulary work, I also like to provide clear, succinct feedback to my students with their writing. Like any new fledging teacher, I had to learn and stop myself from dousing a student's paper with a red pen years ago. After all, students will not read all of these comments and only become overwhelmed with all the corrections you have made. Instead, I make use a rubric to score students' writing and write three specific comments on their writing -- one thing they did well, one thing they can improve on, and one way to improve this weakness. I emphasize to students that the writing process is never done and insist on seeing all parts of the process -- from brainstorming to the final draft -- turned in when an essay is due.
When former students come back from high school and visit me, they often comment on how difficult my vocabulary quizzes were (and how many of them still save them to refer to later!) and how much they learned from me about writing. Many say that they do not have adequate time or space to practice their writing formally in high school, even in English class. Is this acceptable? No. But essays take SO much time for the teachers to grade! Oh well.
Jay Mathews argues that students need far more serious opportunities for written analysis in high school, even when deemed unnecessary or inappropriate. Oh, and this kind of writing should not just take place in English class (Thank you!). Students need to learn to write effectively for all subjects and be afforded critical, meaningful feedback from their teachers in the process. Mathews writes:
Teachers with dynamite résumés are not uncommon in the Washington area. Like Linz, they don’t take any nonsense from me. When I gushed over the writing he was teaching his students, and mentioned my view that all schools should require major essays, he said that showed how naive I was about demands on teachers’ time.
“I cannot imagine how any high school teacher with five classes can do a 4,000-word project,” he said. “To be done even semi-correctly, the teacher would have to do virtually nothing else for much of the year.”
If we increased class sizes for courses that did not require research papers and freed time for teachers with writing skill to meet with students as they wrote their successive drafts, it might work. Linz has handled a heavy load of writing students even though he is older than even I am and on his second heart.