This marks my 27th year as an English teacher, and I am still figuring out what it means to teach students to write. I have been researching this topic for most of those years: I read the books, I keep up with the posts, I see the journal articles: a new idea, a new pedagogical twist every year. How does one teach writing, if the techniques change every other day?
I have found only one answer that works: you teach writing one kid at a time.
Teaching writing is the most personal, individual kind of teaching I have ever encountered. Each student is in a different place with her writing, and each student has something uniquely hers to write. If I want to do my job well, I have to sit with the student and read her work, ask about it, listen to her re-read it, and encourage her to reconsider what she has done and can do. Then, I have to hush up and let her write, and I can only watch and listen. I reflect back what I hear, but it is her voice on the page. She is grabbing hold of her power as a writer.
To teach like this necessarily takes time. Personal attention is at its core, and personal attention cannot be rushed. That is why small class size is so crucial to the teaching of writing. Dana Hall School makes it possible for me to teach relatively few kids at a time, 15 in my biggest class. So I can spend precious time with each student and give her the attention she needs. I can give personal feedback when I read student work because I teach a reasonable number of kids.
And, best of all, I have back up: the Writing Lab.
Dana Hall has an amazing resource, the Writing Lab, staffed every day by teachers and writing professionals. My students can seek out personal writing help during their school day. And I get the privilege of staffing the Writing Lab; twice a week I sit in a small room, and students come in for protected 20-minute conferences with me to work on their writing.
Today I might get the chance to sit with a senior whom I taught in ninth grade, that girl who once struggled to organize a paragraph, who wants to know if her complex thesis is fully covered in four paragraphs, or does she need a fifth to flesh out this last idea? The ninth-grader I advise may ask me to help her polish a speech she will deliver when she runs for class co-president. A young woman I never met before needs someone to bounce ideas off of while she begins a creative writing assignment. A student from Beijing wants to be sure she is conjugating all her verbs correctly in her 10th-grade English essay. They bring research papers, college essays, lab reports, personal reflections, Moth stories, and lab reports. And I listen to them, I reflect what I hear, I encourage them to own their writing power. In the Writing Lab, I get to teach writing the only way it works: one kid at a time.
I recently ran into a former student in the barn of the Karen Stives Equestrian Center. I was walking my child around to see the horses, and she was brushing down her horse after a ride. She was proud to tell me about her progress in college, how she was excited to pursue her career plans and embrace the direction of her life. She told me that writing is the best skill she learned at Dana Hall. She uses it as her secret weapon both in and out of school.
I was delighted, but I was not surprised.
We hear this often from alumnae, from Chemistry majors and MBA students, English PhDs and mechanical engineers-in-training. They know that they learned how to write well at Dana Hall. They know the time we invested in teaching writing, time spent one kid at a time, was time well spent.