Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Transforming Substance into Significance, Part 10: Teacher Expertise—"Critics" & Teachers

Teachers as “Critics”
The BBC used to produce a show in which an individual was taken from his normal surroundings and professional practices and placed in a month-long, immersion experience in a profession he dreamed of practicing. At the conclusion of the month, the individual faced a test. He or she had to interact effectively with peers in the assumed profession and fool the field’s critics into thinking he was a professional. The show was fascinating on many levels—observing the learners who effectively gained the knowledge they needed, watching the “teachers” and seeing their influence—but especially to observe the interaction of critics and pretender.

The critics interviewed three people in each show: two practicing professionals and the “faker” who had completed a month of immersion training. Because they had such depth of knowledge, the critics often knew exactly the questions that would trip up an faker. In fact, the questions required so much understanding of the field that they often tripped up the practicing professionals.

One memorable episode featured a house painter who dreamed of becoming an abstract artist with displays of his work in art galleries. The month featured ups and downs as the painter learned technique, vocabulary, history, and the qualities of great abstract painting. His interaction with peers at a gallery display was quite good. But the critics, who had reviewed his paintings, knew exactly what the painter’s strengths and needs were. (They also knew the strengths and weaknesses of the two practicing professionals whose work was on display.) Within moments of scanning the work, most of the critics identified the “faker.”

What I found especially memorable about this episode, however, was the faker’s response. He wanted to learn more! He had begun to develop as a professional artist, and he treated the critics’ input as a step in the learning. His concluding remarks made it clear that he hoped to continue developing. Returning to house painting would not satisfy this budding abstract artist.

What does this have to with writing instruction? First, the critics had the task of assessing the painter’s work. They had to know what they were looking for so well that by merely scanning a work they could identify its strengths and weaknesses. Writing teachers need to be equally familiar with the writing tasks they assign students and the criteria with which they will assess the results. This knowledge enables coaching: the teacher can quickly assess the strengths and needs of the student writer and suggest ways of improving it. Second, the critics’ input became an instrument of learning. Writing teachers should view assessment as an ongoing component of teaching and learning. The caring input students receive while writing not only improves the writing they are doing but provides guidance for future writing. Coach a developing writer enough on effective sentence limits and soon that young writer’s rough drafts feature better constructed sentences. And when the young writer develops that awareness and the skill of crafting sentences, there will be no going back. That element of good writing has been integrated into the writer’s practice.

Writing teachers need to be effective “critics”; they need to be constantly assessing student writing and offering suggestions for increased achievement. However, unlike critics in the art world, the teacher needs to assess within an environment of nourishing passion (Maisel, 2005). A nourishing passion:
  • communicates that a student matters
  • conveys that students’ meaning-making through writing is valuable
  • makes certain that students understand the purpose for writing
  • helps construct feelings of competency in students by actually developing student competencies
  • transmits a love for a student’s current project
  • takes student thinking and writing seriously
  • communicates excitement about writing and each facet it comprises
Developing young writers requires a caring, critical eye combined with a nourishing spirit.

Teachers as Writing Teachers
It may seem obvious that writing teachers need to be effective teachers of writing, but let’s examine what characterizes effective writing instruction.

First, effective writing instruction engages the brain’s natural learning processes—i.e., the teaching aligns with how the brain learns. When teaching concepts such as genre, the teacher uses activities that engage the thinking students need to construct understanding. When teaching revision skills, the teacher uses activities that engage the thinking and action students need to develop utility.

Second, effective writing instruction uses instructional methods known to be effective in developing young writers. Direct instruction in revision skills and coaching throughout the writing process are two examples. Both directly influence the young writer’s ability to improve writing.

Third, effective writing instruction sequences activities in ways that optimize student development. The flow of instruction enables students to gain the knowledge, construct the understanding, develop the utility, and ultimately integrate the new learning into successful and consistent practice.

Finally, effective writing instruction flows easily from direct instruction to individual coaching as needed to optimize student achievement. The teacher adjusts the instructional material and techniques in accordance with student learning needs.

Teaching writing successfully requires a knowledgeable, caring, and effective teacher. No other school-based factor contributes more to a young writer’s development. The best teachers are those who are well-equipped to teach writing—those who know how to craft writing themselves and know how to guide young writers to such practice. The teacher, not any textbook or materials, makes the difference.

For information on Clerestory Learning's The Writer's Stylus, click here or contact Clerestory Learning via this form.

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