| Teacher Portfolio: Karen McGee
a Northern Nevada teacher shares on-line lessons and ideas
I am Karen McGee, retired, but not tired of teaching and learning. Even though I’ve been a writing teacher for more than 20 years, I’ve never seen myself as a good writer. Sure, I’m adequate. I’ve had moments of brightness, even. But, I’ve seen so many folks who are truly good writers, and they have something that I just don’t have. My husband has a way of looking at a topic that is so far from literal, so “out of the box” from my way of thinking. In his essays, he can write about two seemingly disparate subjects only to weave them together with an insight that takes my breath away. My old friend and mentor, Neil Fockler, used to say that, “Good writing is good thinking,” and I now believe that. Can we teach someone to be a good thinker? I suspect that we can’t. I do believe, however, that we can teach others to be adequate thinkers and adequate writers (or proficient writers on a writing test). The truly great writers have been gifted, and instruction in the craft of writing has only honed their skills.
As a writing teacher, I believe that developing a language about writing, such as with Analytical Traits, has greatly improved the teaching of writing. Because writing is such a complex act of expression--- a way of thinking and a way of looking at the world combined with the physical act of writing, ie. grammar, punctuation, spelling--- students may have a sense of a piece of writing as being good without being able to express what makes it good. Trait language allows us to have conversations like, “Did that lead hook you and make you want to continue reading?” or “That is a great showing sentence, rich with relevant details,” or “ When you moved from this paragraph to the next one, I felt confused; I need some kind of transition so that your thinking flows smoothly.” Even though the writing is “seen,” the thinking is an “in-the-head” behavior. I believe that through talk, we can make our thinking visible and therefore teachable to others. Trait language is a gift for writing teachers and students.
Perhaps the thing I most believe about the teaching of writing is the power of affect. When students feel competent with their writing, they are willing to continue practicing and sharing; as they continue to write and talk about their writing, they improve and begin to see themselves as writers. The important job for the teacher is to provide enough diverse opportunities for students to be successful. Some students need lots of prewriting experiences such as drawing, listing, webbing, filling out graphic organizers. Others need a variety of writing experiences such as writing responses to literature, to films, to speakers, to concrete experiences; writing dialogue journals; writing short stories and longer pieces of fiction; writing in a variety of expository styles , including persuasion; writing a variety of narrative pieces; and writing poetry. I believe that most of these writings are simply first-draft writing. When a student is fortunate enough to have an adult respond to and edit a first draft, the student can enjoy a finished product without the agony and frustration of having to redo and redo and redo.
Because I am retired and volunteer in two classrooms a week, I often act as the responder and editor for students’ first drafts. During these one-on-one meetings, I probe the student’s thinking with questions like, “What did you mean here? “ or “This is a telling sentence; can you show me what you mean?” I push for clarification, for specific, relevant details, for smooth transitions. We talk about inviting leads and satisfying conclusions. With every addition or change, we reread the text to hear how it sounds aloud. I often worry about putting my thinking and my words into the students’ mouths, but I soothe my concerns when I realize how very pleased the students feel with the revisions. One student was so delighted with his revised text that he asked me if I would be in school for the 5 th grade writing test to help him think and write. Later, that same boy wrote that he hoped to be a writer when he grew up. I believe that when students see their writing as “good,” they begin the cycle of self-fulfilling prophesy: I am a writer, and I’m willing to write.
I believe that I will continue to learn more about the teaching of writing as long as I continue to teach and reflect: I am a writing teacher, and I’m willing to teach.