The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

What It means to Be a Teacher of Writing

on February 24, 2016

Today, for personal reasons, I am writing about my own experiences as a student, teacher, writer, mother, and friend rather than what is happening in the world of education.  I think you’ll understand why as you read.

In college I had a split major in English and Dramatic Arts.  I never thought I would become a writer, actress, or even a teacher, but those things appealed to me more than anything else.  Because teachers were scarce in those days I got a job after taking only one summer course in Education.  I did no student teaching.  Over the years that followed my husband and I moved a lot because of his job, and I taught various elementary and middle school grades in several schools.  My last teaching job–before becoming an elementary principal–was high school English.

Since I had no training or experience in my new role I designed the program the way I thought best. I had only one hundred students and an extra daily planning period that teachers of other subjects didn’t have.  But still my job wasn’t easy. For the sake of my sanity, I set up a series of three-week writing units for each of my classes over the school year, none of them overlapping.  In each unit we examined a great story, essay, or piece of poetry as a class, then I asked students to write something with a similar structure, beginning it in class and finishing it on their own time. When they handed in their work the following week, I had only 25 papers to read and critique. I tried to make at least one positive comment on each paper, refer to the general weaknesses I saw, and give specific suggestions for changes where they were most needed.  Then I gave back the papers to be revised and handed in the following week.  My final review was easier.  I read each final paper, commented briefly, and gave it a grade. Throughout eight years in that job I felt that most of my students made good progress in learning how to write well, and I still had time and energy for my own life.

Many years later I still follow many of the same practices with my family and friends.  I edit my husband’s work very closely–even though I know little about his field of science.  I edit and comment on my grown granddaughter’s job applications, have done similar editing for my children in the past, and I help friends with important pieces of writing by commenting and suggesting changes as specifically I can.

I share my experiences with readers today because two important things have just happened: my son Alan had a letter published in today’s New York Times and a friend thanked me for helping him improve an essay he was working on.  Although my son did not need my help this time–or any other time recently–I feel proud yet humble about any support I have been able to give him and others in the past.  It’s so good to feel that my work as a teacher of writing is still relevant.



3 responses to “What It means to Be a Teacher of Writing

  1. doctorsam7 says:

    For a very long time I considered myself a teacher not a writer. Then I spent a number of years studying writer’s workshop and learning the art and science of workshop conferencing. Not only did I learn how to help both teachers and students become better writers, I also learned that I was a writer. I especially like to write literacy songs and think pieces about literacy. My retirement is allowing me to begin to explore both those avenues. My advice to any writer- find your lifetime topics. Those are the two or three things you are most passionate about. Write about those things. Write about them in different genres. I think you will find it a rewarding experience.
    P.S. I can attest to your editing abilities first hand. Your summary of a post I recently made to your blog was crisp, and modeled for me the importance of capturing the important ideas when writing a post.
    Dr. Sam Bommarito
    Retired Reading Specialist.


  2. doctorsam7 says:

    Edit to my reply-
    add a final sentence: “Thank you for your help and for all your work to promote literacy.”


  3. Since secondary teachers have multiple classes and often have large class sizes, there is no way that they can devote an adequate amount of time to student/teacher writing conferences or to written feedback — after all, ten minutes per week times 150 students is 25 extra hours of work! One way to address this, something that my colleague Elly Tobin and I will focus on during our International Writing Project course for teachers this summer, is for teachers to teach students how to effectively solicit and give response to writing pieces. This takes a lot of practice at first, but when students start moving beyond saying “That’s good” or “That needs some work” to providing helpful, specific questions and suggestions, student writing can really progress.


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