“What is your purpose as an educator?”
My husband, Justin, asked me this question a few months ago. We were discussing how districts and teachers try to create and take a student centered approach, but very rarely manage to sustain it. We went on to discuss and examine the various reasons why, too many to list. Justin was a former educator and administrator and currently works at Apple Inc. I still try, unsuccessfully, may I add, to persuade him to return to his roots of education. As the weeks passed, I kept hearing his question in my mind.
Grade level meetings are every Wednesday in our cyber school setting. No elementary teacher teaches her lessons on Wednesdays. This day is solely set aside for PD, team building and prep. Yes, an entire day! Yes!! I love this day and feel very fortunate to be able to have time to view my learner’s work and plan accordingly to their needs. My third grade team of teachers are amazing. I like to think of us as a beautiful tapestry; each thread, intricately woven together, each an important part of the whole. For this particular meeting, we were discussing our digital portfolios, rubrics and grading student writing. We spent quite a bit of time focusing on deductions for student writing. I sat back and listened. Deduct, deduct, deduct.
What is your purpose as an educator? Is it to overwhelm a struggling writer?
Many teachers tend to correct every single convention error they see in a learners writing piece. There’s much to look at; spelling, grammar, mechanics, sentence structure, just to name a few. This takes a huge amount of time for the teacher. It also creates a huge burden on the struggling writer. Images of bright red ink on white lined notebook paper, comes to mind. As a young learner, I found it difficult to write and let the words flow out of me. These corrections placed on my writing, overwhelmed and paralyzed me. I was more focused on the deductions, my grade, than on my message.
Every teacher has to lay to rest, this tension between viewing writing as generating and shaping ideas, and writing as a final product that focuses primarily on correctness. Which is more important, the message or the conventions? The process or the product? The student or the grade? These are the types of questions we need to ask ourselves as teachers. On the one hand, it is important for writing to be as correct as possible. Young writers need to be able to produce well written, correct texts so that readers can read and make meaning from them. On the other hand, achieving correctness is only one small, tiny set of things writers must be able to do. Is there even a formula for resolving this tension?
What is your purpose as an educator? Are your writing lessons based on your agenda or your students needs?
I am a firm believer that writers do not accumulate skills and strategies once and for all. When conferencing with my learners, I learn how I can best assist them, how best to plan my writing lessons. I provide honest feedback and discuss areas that they seem to have a good handle on and areas of opportunities (improvement). Even if it’s something that we have already visited, discussed and reviewed. It’s perfectly fine to revisit that concept again, if that is what your students need. Young writers develop and refine writing skills throughout their writing lives, they take up new tasks, in new genres, and for new audiences. They grow continually, using numerous writing spaces and technologies.
Often in school, students write only to prove that they did something they were asked to do. They write in order to get credit for it or for a high grade. They write because someone in authority tells them to. Writing is not a command or a chore. It is not just one practice or activity. Writing a letter to a friend, is not like a writing a scientific research report, which is different again from writing a poem or explaining your reasoning in solving a math equation. All the different purposes grow out of different relationships between writers and their readers. As educators, we must convey the message of writing with certain purposes in mind.We can conclude that an author’s writing, is shaped by their purpose, the needs of their audience, and the conventions of the genre.
What is your purpose as an educator? Is it just to deduct points from writing assignments?
I have such mixed feelings in regards to grading. What is an “A”? What does it mean? Have students really mastered these concepts? Can they apply them? Why do we place so much emphasis on scores? Our focus should be on our students, where they are in their learning and digging deeper. As teachers, we need to meet students where they are, in regards to their writing. The ultimate goal should not be correctness. It should not be pre-planned deductions. When grading students writing, we need to focus on each individual young writer. And if there is one thing I’ve learned from my learners is that writers start in different places.
I have some students who are very comfortable placing their ideas and thoughts on paper. They know what their purpose is, and who their audience is. They take risks with their writing. When I conference with them, they accept feedback and are off to jot down their thoughts on something else. However, I have many learners in my gifted class, who hesitate and cry when asked to write. They struggle tremendously and are unable to even begin. Often times, I ask them to tell me their thoughts. “What do you want to write about today?”, I’ll ask. They begin to tell me about their weekend, soccer game or party they attended. As they do, I ask them if they can type those same words and sentences down. Many do, others hesitate, so I take on the task and then have them take over.
As a teacher, I can not consciously grade these learners the same way. I can’t. It would be unfair. They are at different places in their journey of the writing process. My hope is that I move them toward greater flexibility, so that they can write not just for their own reasons, but for wider audiences. I hope my learners can feel comfortable writing and not view it as a daunting task. I want them to share their message without even thinking about their grade.
“Empathy is when a person accurately communicates that they see another’s intentions and emotional state. It means watching a child’s frustration and focusing on how life feels in that little child’s body, while putting our own agenda into the background.”
So, what is our purpose as educators?
One could respond to this question in many different ways. To me, our purpose is to have a great deal of empathy for our learners. Our focus should be on nurturing our students and their learning, not judging their performance. A student’s emotions affect the way they learn, and how much they learn. Educators must be able to connect to, and understand their students in order to best serve those students’ needs. Teachers who choose to empathize, are making a vulnerable choice. They are making a conscious effort to see, understand and connect with their learner as they are, without judgement, agreement or disagreement. This is quite a challenge for many.
The teaching of writing means considering the learner, understanding where they are coming from. Considering cultural differences of our students, as well as linguistic, racial, and economic differences, is paramount. Knowing what kinds of language a writer speaks at home, makes a huge difference in understanding them, their words and their message. Even more so, we need to consider digital innovation and how that has created new contexts and new languages which are being invented on a continuous basis. It’s imperative to understand how these language experiences influence the way a learner composes their piece. We should ask, “Where is the learner is in the writing process? How are they incorporating their experiences into their writing, to reach their readers. It’s not so much about the finished piece or product, its about their journey through learning to write. We must consider and include theses areas, to whatever other guidelines already exist. Ultimately, understanding our learners experiences – who they are, where they come from – is what will catapult their success.