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Louisiana has piloted yearlong residencies for aspiring teachers since 2014 through Believe and Prepare, impacting over 1,200 resident and mentor teachers and over 26,000 students statewide. Backed by the Louisiana Board of Regents, the polices passed in October ensure that all teacher candidates in the 2018-2019 year and beyond will have the same experience as those who participated in the Believe and Prepare program.

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Write Your Wrongs

by Mar 07, 2017
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New Orleans native author Anne Rice has some sage advice that I think all new teachers should embrace: “Go where the pain is; go where the pleasure is.” As a new teacher, you will quickly grimace at the challenges and grin at the joys that you always assumed teaching could offer. You will be caught between proving your worth professionally and connecting with students personally. One way that you can bridge this gap is to invest in writing in the classroom.

Granted, teaching writing is tough. It’s a labyrinth of looping distractions and crumbled breadcrumbs, and you can only hope that on your way back out of the process, you can somehow stumble home to a sense of normalcy. It’s gritty. It’s messy. It’s chaotic. It’s coffee-shop Saturdays. It’s one-on-one desk conferences with thirty students in fifty minutes. It will make you question your sanity at times. But to the tens or hundreds of students with which you have the honor of experiencing growth and learning, it’s essential.

I’ve spoken to several colleagues outside of the English classroom who have reservations to teach writing. “I don’t remember the grammar,” some say. “I don’t want to contradict ‘you English people,’” others lament. As a new teacher, regardless of content, do not be afraid to take your kids on a writing journey. There will be hiccups and delays. There will be frustrations and breakthroughs. But Rice reminds us all to seek out the pain and pleasure because each is essential to help both you and your students grow.

Perhaps the ultimate key to unlock what we must be and do as teachers lies in the etymology of the word “write.” Words for “write” in most Indo-European languages originally meant “carve, scratch, or cut.” If we adopt and attribute this meaning to today’s classroom, we can then view writing as a process of chipping away and scratching deep into a topic or text in hopes of unveiling the deeper context or argument. The key to any classroom, whether you are a novice teacher or an experienced educator, is to have your students write often to prove a level of high thinking. Using both weak and exemplar models for students to peruse and dissect has worked well in my classroom. Sample responses and essays are vital for a classroom that values writing, as students can work together to break down strengths and weaknesses of the writing so they can either apply or avoid particular traits. Even creating exemplar models with fellow teachers, followed by shared reading and grading, can help you reflect and share ideas on what is working and what needs improvement, while also making the experience seem not so isolated.

As a teaching profession, if we all remain committed to the craft of writing and re-writing – to the process and product of writing – we can help both the students and ourselves carve, scratch, and cut a path to success. Additionally, if you want to be effective and if you want to ensure your students are thinking critically at high levels, you must leave room for re-writing and revision – the scratching, messy part. A teacher’s number one resistance to this advice is usually centered on a lack of time. And while this is valid, completely dismissing the notion of revision opportunities does not help students improve their craft of written expression. A suggestion is to give students a chance to break down their own writing, along with their peers’ writing, to learn from living, breathing samples produced by students in the classroom. Have students conduct targeted workshops. Do not make the experience overwhelming for students, as many students view “peer editing” as simply a chance to pat each other on the back. Show students the importance of the process so that the product can either meet or exceed proficiency. As Robert Scholes and Nancy Comley indicate in their work The Practice of Writing, “to refuse revision is to refuse thought itself.”

Another practical tip I have initiated in my classroom and within my English department is a “number” coding system for feedback. I call it “Commendations and Corrections.” This helps teachers speed up the feedback on writing assignments and assists students with having clear pre-established expectations they can use in all facets of the writing system, including revisions. As a department, create a list of positive qualities (“commendations”) you want to see in student work and negatives you want students to avoid. Assign each trait either an even number (a positive commendation) or an odd number (a criticism/suggestion/correction). Any time a student does something well in his or her writing, offer praise with an even number. If the student has erred or needs to improve a particular skill, offer criticism with an odd number. This is a valuable strategy because it will remind you to compliment what the student does well so that he or she will continue doing it. It also helps students see their areas that require more work and attention. This same technique can work across content lines if new teachers are willing to reach out across various departments to discuss what high and low quality work look like.

At the end of the day, have students approach their writing as a block of wood or a slab of marble ready to be manipulated into a masterpiece by the gifted artist. Inch by inch, chisel move by chisel move, slice by slice, the object assumes a new character in small, steady increments. Don’t be afraid of the mess. Step over it. Step around it. When you get to the pain, keep going to find the pleasure. As a new teacher, don’t be afraid to slow down. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Mark Ebarb is a 2015 Louisiana Teacher of the Year finalist. He has been an educator for eight years and currently teaches at Dutchtown High School in Ascension Parish.

For more information about the literacy competencies required for initial teacher certification, see the Louisiana Teacher Preparation Competencies available in the preparation library that BESE approved in October 2016.