| A WritingFix/NNWP Teacher Presenter: Barbara Surritte-Barker
a Northern Nevada Writing Project Teacher Consultant shares her on-line materials
A River Runs Through It. That was the movie. English 101 was the class, and I was assigned the task of watching that movie and writing a four-page summary. That was the year that I found out that I couldn’t write. I had spent hours writing my paper, feeling confident that I had completed a masterpiece. My father would be my editor. He agreed to read my piece and offer suggestions. He spent the night revising, and posted my paper on the fridge. The next morning I was shocked when I saw the paper...it was trashed. I’ll never forget that feeling; I was stunned and heart broken. I thought I could write, that I understood the process, but apparently I didn’t. After several conversations with my father and a few tears, he helped me to become a better writer.
So many students and teachers have had similar experiences. Someone declared that you could or couldn’t write, either by what they said, or how they responded to a piece. Today, I’m not the most competent writer or even the best Language Arts teacher out there, but I do have a couple of things working in my favor. One, I’m passionate; I love what I do and I want to be better. And two, I’m a hard worker. These two things have helped me to become a better writing teacher. Based on my experiences as a writer and a teacher, this is what I believe…
I believe that what we do in our classroom should be researched based: As a student, I needed to learn how to become a better writer. So, I began to research and read everything I could about the teaching of writing. I believe that as educators we need to spend the time reading about writing. I like being able to teach researched based best practices “stuff” in my classroom. The last great book I read was titled Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement by Robert J. Marzano. Vocabulary instruction is an area I struggle with in my classroom; Robert Marzano highlights some strategies that are practical for developing a strong vocabulary program.
I also enjoy taking classes from professionals like those who post their work on this website. One class that I took that inspired me was taught by Carol Gebhart. She presented a lesson several years ago on memoirs. From start to finish, I was engaged and thoughtfully transferring the knowledge being dispensed to my classroom. The content was meaningful, the lesson well thought out and her delivery was first class. You know those classes you attend when time just seems to fly by? Carol’s lesson was just that way. I believe that finding people and resources to mentor you both through literature and professional development is not only a way to grow professionally, but it’s another way to keep your classroom engaging for your students.
I believe that when providing feedback on student work, our responses should be authentic: I remember watching a video tape of myself teaching; there were several things that I didn’t like about it, you know, the way I was dressed, the way I looked, but most importantly my responses to students. I found that I walked around the room, responding to students in the same repetitious way, “that’s great!”, “looks great!” And when I really wanted to step it up, I added, “Maria, that’s great!” Sure, everything was great, but students were treated like robots working on a production line instead of individuals with different learning styles. Providing authentic and specific feedback to our students’ writing helps them to become better writers. When my dad took the time to respond to my writing, specifically, that’s the day I began my journey to becoming a better writer.
Finally, I believe in (and love to talk about) authentic literature: From picture books to chapter books, using authentic literature to teach writing is one of the most valuable tools I have in my toolbox. Authors with years of experience essentially teach writing in my classroom every day. I introduce my students to books listed on this website, use the lessons to create a reading and writing environment rich with the elements of great writing, encouraging students to look beyond the written piece and question the author. Consider word choice, how many tier 2 words were used, and why? What was the author thinking when he/she developed this idea? Where did this idea come from? How come the story ended this way? No longer are we just a member of the audience, we’re investigators trying to solve a mystery. Using this strategy, I believe, helps my students to become better writers.
There are so many things that I believe in, keeping it concise is quite difficult and changes as I grow in my profession. I’m grateful that my dad invested the time necessary to help me become a better writer. I believe I still need to work on being more concise, but there’s still plenty of time for that. My name is Barbara Surritte-Barker. I’m a Nationally Board Certified teacher and I proudly teach middle school Language Arts in Sparks, Nevada.