Building the Content Knowledge we Need as Teachers of Writers

This post was originally published on the CCIRA blog, February 26, 2020.

“How did you know to do that?” 

This is the question I am asked most often as I work side by side with teachers and kids in writing workshops. And while I appreciate the unspoken implication that the instructional move that prompted the question is remarkable in some way, it typically isn’t. 

My ability to respond so naturally to writers in the moment comes from deep content knowledge I have built over many years—nothing magical about it. 

Awesome, you’re probably thinking. Is that all? 

Yes, and. . . Underneath that original question is another, more important question, at least from my point of view as an instructional coach: How DO we build the deep content knowledge we need as teachers of writers?

Teaching writers is complex. It can seem overwhelming to contemplate the expertise necessary to teach writers effectively. The more we learn, the more we realize we have to learn. . . And yet, we all start somewhere. (Even Ralph Fletcher started somewhere, or so I tell myself when I’m feeling a little overwhelmed.) We all make intentional decisions to invest in ourselves as learners, as well as to the writing lives of the young writers in our class(es). 

Penny Kittle describes the impact a skilled teacher has on young writers in her book, Write Beside Them

“I’ve been fascinated by the teaching of writing for years. I’ve read many books and listened to many brilliant people, but sometimes I feel I’ve learned only one thing: If you want better writers, all of the power lies within you. It’s all about teaching. In study after study when researchers took all of the factors that can impact student achievement—from parental income to school resources to parental support to per pupil spending in a school district—the factor that had a greater impact than all of the others combined was the effectiveness of the classroom teacher. By saying that, I do not discount the impact those other factors do have on our classrooms and our students, but simply to remind you that your skills and expertise are more powerful” (Kittle, 2008, p. 2-3).

There are no shortcuts. It does take time and effort to build those powerful skills and expertise. But there are ways to be strategic in how we build content knowledge, so that we can see evidence of our learning on student writing as soon as possible. As we know, it is seeing evidence of growth that motivates learners of all ages to continue learning. 

#1: We can read. 

It is an investment to seek out content knowledge, and it is a choice. And as much as it is true that we learn by doing, we also learn by reading. In this busy world, it can be tempting to say things like, “I don’t have time to read.” When I hear this, I cringe—I can’t help it. We are professionals, and professionals read. As George Couros said at #CCIRA20, “Learning is [our] job. It is literally [our] job.” 

That said, there are a myriad of options for how we might read. We can read professional books, blogs, and articles. We can listen to podcasts. We can tap into eduTwitter, where links to reading material are right there on our phones. It’s not about reading everything cover to cover—there’s way too much out there for that to be possible. But we should know the work of the foundational leaders in our field as well as the leaders and practitioners who are adding new thinking to the research. We will never be able to stay in the loop with everything, but our young writers are depending on us to try. 

In addition to the wealth of professional resources available, building reading lives that extend beyond professional reading supports our developing content knowledge as well. If our writing workshops reflect the kinds of writing that exist in the real world, then we need to be well versed in the kinds of writing that are out there: the fiction and nonfiction that our kids are reading, literature and informational text that tap into our own passions, examples of real people (of all ages) communicating for authentic purposes. . . We need to be noticers and collectors, seeking out examples of different forms and genres that our writers might find relevant. 

One recent example for me came from a traveling exhibit in Denver this fall called the Empathy Museum. A colleague visited it with her son, and as we discussed what made it such a powerful experience for them, the connections to possibilities for writing were immediate. (If you watch the linked video, you’ll be able to envision what we’re envisioning. . .) It is through “reading the world,” feeling the impact that different forms of communication have on us as we encounter them out in the wild, that we discover authentic reasons to read and write. 

Beyond reading, we seek out opportunities to learn more. We take classes and attend conferences. Every year at the CCIRA Conference, I’m in multiple writing sessions that knock me off my feet in the best possible way, challenging me to think differently or to dig more deeply into the way I teach writers. This year it was Matt Glover and Colleen Cruz, both of whom are making similar, innovative connections between reading and writing instruction with writers of very different ages. Being open to new thinking creates opportunities to continually connect to and refine what we understand about writing instruction. 

#2: We can write.

I know this one makes some educators uncomfortable. . . but it really is the key to developing deep content knowledge in writing. There is something about doing the work we are asking our students to do that builds a bridge. Being writers ourselves allows us to shift our stance—to move from being “the teacher” to being a fellow writer, side by side in the workshop. 

Kids are much more likely to take the feedback or strategies we offer when they are coming from our experience, rather than just our curriculum. It’s similar to how kids can tell if we really read the books that they are reading or if we just pretend to. . . They’re super savvy—they can smell authenticity. 

Ralph Fletcher is right on when he says, “Our classrooms are filled with students desperate for adults who care about writing and books as much as they do” (Fletcher, 2013, p. 10). When we (read and) write, we become those mentors for kids. We also develop empathy for the work of writers that is challenging. We begin to anticipate those challenges, which impacts the ways in which we plan for writing instruction. 

Katie Wood Ray describes this shift from writing teacher to teacher who writes in Study Driven

“Teachers who have empathy for the work of a writer are able to teach more than just process; they can help students understand what it’s like to be a writer engaged in the process, and that’s so different. For example, it’s one thing to know, in an intellectual sort of way, that people who write often have to rewrite and rework a draft over and over to get it right. It’s quite another thing to understand, in an emotional sort of way, how hard it is to actually do that. When what you know about ‘people who write’ becomes what you know ‘as a person who writes,’ what you know changes” (Ray, 2006, p. 32). 

When we bring our own writing into the workshop, it opens a window into the thinking work of a writer for kids. We can be transparent about what makes writing complex and how we work through it. This way, student writers expect to encounter obstacles, and they have mindsets and tools for solving problems. 

Most importantly, as long as we are side by side, genuinely engaging writer-to-writer, we don’t have to be the experts. In an inquiry-based writing workshop, we can study great writing together, noticing and naming what makes the writing work. If we position ourselves as the experts, then the learning our writers do will be limited by what we know. When we adjust our stance, positioning ourselves as writers right in the work with kids, we are fellow learners—we are authentically seeking understanding. This stance opens us up to the kind of learning that builds content knowledge. 

#3: We can collaborate with other teachers of writers. 

As John Dewey said, “We don’t learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.” It is essential for teachers of all content areas to have structures in place to support deep collaboration. When teachers have regular opportunities to share and to reflect on instructional practices (especially with student work on the table), content knowledge deepens and instruction is strengthened. Making space for this type of conversation—where we can dig into the nuance of the teaching, not simply skate over the surface—this is how we get better for our writers. 

Building relationships with colleagues where it is safe to take risks and reflect in this way takes commitment. There is so much we can learn from each other when we trust each other enough to describe instructional moves in detail, comparing our intentions with the outcomes of actual student work. Investing in instructional collaboration is a powerful way to accelerate the building of content knowledge. In my experience, teams who prioritize time for this complex work grow their skills more quickly and create a long-lasting support system.

#4: We can recognize that we will never be “finished” learning how to teach writing. 

Wait! Before you close your laptop in frustration, thinking, “That is not at ALL where I thought she was going with this,” consider these words from Katie Wood Ray: 

“Writers have to manage so, so many different decisions to get writing done. That’s one of the most fundamental things about writing—making all these little decisions along the way. Anyone who doesn’t understand that writing is a complex, recursive, ever-shifting kind of thing you have to decide about, hasn’t written very much or hasn’t listened very well when writers have explained how they do what they do.” 

(Ray, 2001, p. 90)

I would argue (and I’m certain Katie would agree) that this is equally true about the teaching of writing. The power lies in all the little decisions we make along the way in response to our writers, and there is no recipe to follow. As teachers who understand the thinking work of writers, we must draw on both deep content knowledge as well as writing experience. We must embrace the complexity, never pretending to have (or believing anyone who claims to have) the magic formula for teaching writing. Instead we read, we seek new learning, we write, we collaborate with others, and we maintain an inquiry stance. 

We have been trusted with making decisions that lead to powerful writing experiences for kids. It will always be a little messy, and there will always be more to learn as we grow alongside our writers. Letting go of that elusive finish line (that does not exist) might help us to revel in our own learning experience along the way. 

Works Cited

Fletcher, Ralph. (2013). What a Writer Needs. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. 

Kittle, Penny. (2008). Write Beside Them. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. 

Ray, Katie Wood. (2006). Study Driven. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. 

Ray, Katie Wood. (2001). The Writing Workshop: Working Through the Hard Parts (And They’re All Hard Parts). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s