AUTHOR'S NOTE: This essay,
written in 1995, was the first thing I ever wrote
about teaching. Prior to working in classrooms, I
worked for two years as a tutor in a variety of
one-on-one and small group situations. This
informal experience was incredibly valuable to me
as it afforded me the opportunity to practice new
teaching techniques in highly controlled
environments with a wide variety of learners.
Hardly a session went by when I didn't learn
something new, and sometimes, as in the session I
recount here, the learning was quite profound.
This "pre-teaching" work was so valuable to me
that I have often wondered why this kind of
experience isn't part of the required training in
college-level teacher certification programs.
"Woke up. Got outta
bed. Dragged a comb across my head. Found my way
downstairs and drank a cup. Somebody spoke. I
noticed I was late.”
It’s Friday at 5:00. Time
to work with Katie, my last student of the week.
Actually, it’s about 5:15. By the time I get to my
last kid on Friday, I’m tired and running late.
It’s a typical “day in the life” and, typically, I
don’t have a lot of energy for doing much more
than hanging out and making sure she’s getting her
homework done. Usually we work on math, but today
she wants to work on her research project. She’s
doing a report on the Beatles. I ask her how she
plans to get started and she says: “I need to get
things out of the books.” She has several books
from the library in front of her on the table. I
tell her to get busy.
She opens up her favorite
book, goes to the very first paragraph, and begins
copying down the words. I ask her what she’s doing
and she says she’s writing the beginning. I let
her copy out the first couple of paragraphs, and
then I ask her to read me what she’s written. She
reads with pride the writing of another author,
stumbling here and there on words and phrases that
are not a part of her regular vocabulary. When
she’s finished she looks at me as though she
thinks she’s done a good job and is expecting my
usual generous praise for her effort. She’s not
going to get it. But I’m not going to get mad at
her either. Instead, as tired as I am, and as
disappointed as I am to see yet another kid
turning out yet another boring paper, I’m going
try to teach her how to write. Or rather, she’s
going to teach herself how to write.
I had read a previous
report of Katie’s as well as research work by
several other kids at her school. Typical stuff.
Many kids turned in reports that were largely
copied from encyclopedias or other sources. And if
they weren’t copied, they might as well have been.
Most of them started out with sentences like:
“Abraham Lincoln was born on February 18, 1804 in
Springfield, Illinois. At the age of 23 he became
a lawyer. Etc.…” I feel so bad when I see writing
like this. There’s just no reason for it. Kids are
capable of so much more. Even kids like Katie—who
have learning problems, low self-esteem, and a
variety of other issues to contend with—can
produce excellent work if given the chance.
“Why don’t you write it
yourself?” I say.
“Because it’s just right
here,” she replies anxiously, pointing to her
book. She’s afraid I’m going to give her a speech
about not copying things out of books. I am, in a
“But that’s not your
“I know. But my writing
isn’t as good.”
“Sure it is.”
“No. How could it be?”
She looks sad, really wiped
out. She’s behind on her report and she just wants
to get it done so it doesn’t spoil her weekend.
“Katie, I’ll bet you’re
writing is even better.”
She glares at me, slightly
frustrated, but with the cutest gimme-a-break look
on her face. I just love this kid.
“Katie, I want to hear your
writing,” I say. “Your friends want to hear your
“No they don’t,” she
whines, sighing as she slumps down, elbows on the
table, chin in her hands.
“Yes they do,” I insist.
“C’mon, I’ll show ya. Close up those books and get
‘em off the table. You don’t need them anymore.
You’re gonna write this all by yourself.”
For the next five minutes I
take her through a simple set of questions: Why
did you pick the Beatles? What do you like about
the Beatles? Why do you like it? What do you think
the most interesting thing is about the Beatles?
What could you say at the beginning of your report
that would make people want to read the rest?
We make no notes, no “mind
maps,” no outlines, no organizers. All we do is
talk. And then I tell her to start writing. I tell
her to write from her head, not from a book; I
tell her I want to hear what she has to say, not
what somebody else has to say.
You can imagine how hard
this is for a little girl who has no confidence in
her own writing ability, who has had very little
writing instruction during her first five years in
school, and who is about as tired as a little girl
could be on a Friday evening. But I tell her she’s
got to do it, and so she does.
Five minutes later, this is
what she comes up with:
You can’t not like the
Beatles. Their songs are so… so… well, I can’t
exactly explain it. Perhaps it’s because of the
lyrics or maybe the support from the audience. For
example, when the Beatles first came to America
there were so many fans to greet them at the
airport they had to call the police to hold all
the ladies back from trying to pull hair and
artifacts of clothing off the Beatles.
The Beatles were the number
one group in the world. Their lives were four of
the most interesting lives in the universe. So
listen to this research project and hear the
Every time something like
this happens, I wonder why I’m still reading so
many “Abraham Lincoln was born on…” reports, or
those silly cut-and-paste jobs out of the latest
CD-ROM encyclopedia. Getting kids to write well is
simply a matter of getting them to think about
what’s important to them, and then asking them to
put that on paper. I ask all the kids I work with
the same small set of personal questions (What do
you like? Why do you like it? What do you find
interesting? What do you think your friends would
like? Etc.), and then I just tell them to write
down their responses. To give their writing shape,
I tell them to think about who they’re writing for
and what that audience would be interested in. And
then I let them write whatever they want. “Write
it down just like you say it,” I urge. “You can go
back and change it later, during editing, if you
want to.” There’s no method, no lessons, no scope,
no sequence. The act of writing, of sharing ideas
in written form with another human being, gives
more than enough structure to the work.
The more I teach writing,
the more I begin to think that most teachers are
working too hard. We’re doing much more than we
need to, and as a result we’re squandering the few
precious resources we have on techniques which
produce poor or inconsistent results, instead of
focusing what little energy we have on the simple
things that really make the difference. And what’s
even worse, the difficulty we have teaching
writing affects our kids. Our fear, discomfort,
and frustration is their fear, discomfort, and
frustration. They think writing is hard and
unnatural, too. Not at all the kind of thing the
typical kid wants to do on a typical day in the
Whenever I find myself
getting too wrapped up in my theories, my
research, and my own childish biases, I try to
remember this: we don’t need lessons or methods or
frameworks or standards to help kids learn to
write; we just need to think about what it’s like
to share something we’re interested in with
someone who’s interested in us. I haven’t met a
kid yet who wasn’t interested in something, and
who didn’t appreciate the attention of a sincere
and respectful audience.
As I work with some of the
same kids time and again, and watch them gradually
overcoming their fears, winning battle after
battle in their own private war on words, I’m
becoming convinced that writing is almost as
natural as speaking. And I’m beginning to feel
that the teaching of writing might be just as