In a continued effort to keep up with my summer motivation and still-reeling school brain, I’ve been thinking a ton about how to better teach reading and writing. As a high school English teacher, for the first time in my career, next year I will teach co-taught classes. When I was in school, I was labeled “gifted” with a particular emphasis on reading and writing, so clearly this was never an area in which I struggled. And when I first started teaching, I thought that just by being “good” at English, I could teach it. But as any teacher knows – simply being good at something doesn’t mean you can be good at teaching it. Often times, in fact, it means the opposite. So in my first five years, in particular the last three really, I’ve been trying to improve my teaching of writing and make it much more concrete. With the help of incredibly talented colleagues, I’ve grown as a writing teacher, without question. I wouldn’t call myself a good writing teacher yet, but I’m far from where I started. However, I still have a long way to go as a reading teacher, especially for students who are struggling readers, and I want to take some of what I did in becoming a better writing teacher and apply it to becoming a better reading teacher. So below, I’ve developed a list for myself, as well as anyone else, of some steps to becoming a better teacher of reading and writing. Some are common sense steps and others are links to resources and books that have helped me along the way.
1. Take off my “strong student” hat and put on my “struggling student” hat. I have to think of this as myself in Chemistry or math class, instead of English class. I have to remember what it was like sitting in a class, doing something in which I wasn’t strong. Looking at the reading or writing piece as a struggling student, I need to first identify where I would be caught up – tough vocabulary, sentence structure, multiple narrators, setting, description, literary devices, background information, etc.
2. And then with that, what do I, as a teacher, need to prepare in order to help with those areas? In a co-taught class, I’m going to have students at all different levels with very different issues. So I must differentiate using each of those possible areas of difficulty I identified.
3. Visit Reading Apprenticeship site for resources and ideas. This was a program I participated in the last two years that focuses on struggling readers, and instead of just giving those students a list of strategies or differentiated activities, RA starts with the premise that students need to be aware of their own reading issues and be able to identify first what problems they have. Then, they can pick and choose from possible tools to help themselves, but they must first be aware of and think about their own reading abilities and reading process. This was an amazingly different way to think about teaching reading and what really got me started down this path for the summer.
4. Consult other reading experts to help me on my way. Some of my favorite books on reading are The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller, Reading in the Wild by Donalyn Miller, Reading Reminders by Jim Burke, Deeper Reading by Kelly Gallagher, Note & Notice by Kylene Beers, and When Kids Can’t Read by Kylene Beers. I have seen many of these authors speak at NCTE or other smaller conventions or speaking engagements. These are the people who have inspired me most about reading and my students, and with their help, I have been better able to put myself in my students’ shoes when it comes to their potential areas of difficulty.
5. Once I’ve practiced this a few times and have a sense of what it means to be a struggling reader, I need to figure out what I want my students be able to do by the end of the year. I am a firm believer in Wiggin and McTighe’s Understanding by Design which focuses on “backwards design” or “beginning with the end in mind.” Where do I want my students to end up by the end of the year, and then I use the answer to that question to plan backwards from there, from goals to assessments to activities to materials.
6. Following UBD, I would now move to the assessments piece of my planning. What writing assessments could I provide for students in order to assess their reading and writing, checking to see if they got as far as I had hoped by the end of lesson/unit/year? I am a firm believer that strong readers can become strong writers, so I start with reading and move into writing. I want my students to read like writers, see what writers do, look at language, and then model what they do in their own work. Then, from there, they can move into playing with language on their own, evaluating author work, and commenting on author choices. So for me, those writing assignments would focus on such points over the course of the year.
7. So again, I would take off my “strong student” hat and put on my “struggling student” hat for the creation of the writing assignments. Where will my students struggle with either the directions or the requirements of this assignment? Then, like with the reading pieces, I will create differentiated activities to help either clarify or practice areas of the assignment so all students can succeed at the proficient level, at minimum.
8. As before, I consult the experts. I find myself truly rejuvenated as a teacher by the words of professionals, people who are in the classroom and truly work with students, know what works and what doesn’t, and have beautiful insights into what I might try with mine. Some great writing books I look to include Ten Things Every Writer Needs to Know by Jeff Anderson, Write Beside Them by Penny Kittle, Teaching Adolescent Writers by Kelly Gallagher, In the Middle by Nancie Atwell, Lessons to Share on Teaching Grammar by Constance Weaver, What a Writer Needs by Ralph Fletcher, and The 9 Rights of Every Writer by Vicki Spandel. Again, as before, the words of these teachers inspire me to help my students by taking a step back, re-evaluate my path when I get stuck, and then push forward in a different direction.
9. More than anything else, my biggest piece of advice to myself and others trying to become a better teacher of anything is to remember why you started the profession in the first place. Teaching is hard. Anyone who says or thinks otherwise doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Teaching. Is. Hard. It’s only getting harder as the state piles more and more requirements on us, and many days I feel myself and my passion getting lost in that pile. But whatever my reasons for starting to teach, those are what I have to go back to on the days when I feel overwhelmed and overworked. For some, it’s the kids, for some it’s the material, for some it’s planning, for some it’s the act of teaching itself. Whatever it is, that’s what helps me when I get overwhelmed, and that’s what I have to remember every time I’m trying to become a better teacher – I have to go back to the beginning and remember why I started.