Thursday, April 25, 2013

Teaching tip: Write alongside the students

English teacher extraordinaire Kelly Gallagher’s written about doing so, and for good reason. As he states in Teaching Adolescent Writers, “the teacher is the best writer in the room.” It’s the teacher’s job to demystify writing and make it accessible for the students. One way to make it accessible is for the teacher to write alongside the students. It can also work well in co-teaching situations because one teacher can write and the other can monitor students.

By letting the students see the teacher write, they can see the mistakes, pauses, and corrections that come along with writing. It shows students that writing is difficult and that it is rarely “right” the first time. As I’ve said to the students, native speakers have plenty of trouble with writing as well. Writing alongside the students gives them a firsthand look at how an expert—the teacher—does it. They can see the starts, the stops, and the revisions that come along the way. The writing process works like stop and go traffic, for it has plenty of speedbumps and can stop at any time. Many of the students think writing's like turning on a tap, but it's not the case, especially with writing in a foreign language.

 In the past, I’ve used overhead projectors, which for all their crudity, worked wonders for showcasing how messy some my drafts could look; I type on a computer that’s connected to a big screen or Smart Board. Typing is cleaner, but handwriting is more illuminating. At any rate, the students can get to see that even smart adults can struggle with writing.

Though Gallagher talks about using this method for complex essays, I've found it works well for shorter pieces as well. Even seeing a few sentences has helped hesitant students put pen to paper. Even seeing a few sentences has helped hesitant students put pen to paper. During the 2nd semester of last year, I and Ms. J taught a series of lessons based on NEAT practice prompts.* We’d introduce the prompt, go over some key expressions or explain a grammar/writing point like how to write complex sentences, and get the students writing. They’d write on their papers, I’d type on the computer, and she’d circulate around the classroom. The prompts would be about things like cities to live in, pros and cons of public transportation, good and bad habits, and fears. Most all of them were 1-2 paragraphs long. The series of lessons worked so well that I've chosen to do them again come 2nd semester of this year.

Writing alongside them also allowed me to better understand the prompt. After all, there’s no better way to understand something than to actually do it. I did the same prompt as the students so uncover any potential difficulties or snags. It was then possible to fine-tune our lesson introduction so the students would better understand the task.

On a final note, using Gallagher's method made me realize how well it worked with a co-teacher in the room, for she could field questions and assist students while I wrote. Her being available to the students eliminated the problem of keeping the students focused while I was doing something. It can be difficult to keep students focused on a writing task, especially the teacher's busy with doing something too. A co-teacher solves this problem and as such we were better able to serve our students. I’m looking forward to using this method more in the future because it’s effective and helpful. 

*NEAT = National English Ability Test. It's a part of Korea's efforts to reform their English curriculum and college entrance examinations.

Amazon: Kelly Gallagher - Teaching Adolescent Writers. An excellent book filled with strategies for teaching middle and high school age students develop as writers.

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