Writing: When Experience Molds Your Teaching – the What, the Why and the How

This week, Kristina Peterson is back with a two part series about reading and writing and how two experiences have influenced hers as a teacher.  You will enjoy these reflective pieces and I encourage you to add your own thoughts too.  First – Writing… ~EMP

The Story: Eleven years ago I created a portfolio for an Expressive Writing class at York High School. I remember thinking that this class was awesome because it didn’t feel like school. We were not writing five paragraph essays like all my other classes. We were not reading boring novels to discuss plot, themes and motifs. Instead, I was writing about my childhood, about my boyfriend, about why Aerosmith was the greatest rock band ever. This class was 11 years ago and every year I drag out that portfolio and I flip through the pages and see myself as I was in high school. At times it helps me see my high school students in a familiar light, and other times it makes me long for the past – but the point is, I treasure it. Even today. And it makes me wonder if I have given my students anything remotely as valuable to them.

As I flip through my portfolio it occurs to me that the reason I have kept this keepsake for so long is because it is intrinsically meaningful for me. It is literally a look into who I was back then. I poured my heart and soul into this project. I wrote and rewrote a piece about the last time I saw my parents together – a piece my teacher then read out loud to the class while I swelled with pride that she had picked my piece to read to everyone. I was motivated to work on this project for months not because there was a grade attached, because in fact the one and only thing missing from this portfolio is the assessment piece, but because it was meaningful for me.

The Research: This kind of motivation is a huge aspect of teaching that tends to be swept aside. We claim that our students don’t write well but we never stop to question if what we are assigning them to write holds any meaning for them whatsoever. In fact, our entire educational system is based on this kind of behaviorist psychology that encourages reward and punishment – students complete their homework and they get full credit (reward) or they read a novel and they get to watch a movie (reward) or they maintain control over themselves and they get the last 5 minutes to chat (reward). Or, the opposite of this, students are punished for not completing assignments or tasks that they find meaningless from the start.

The research compiled in Eric Jensen’s book Teaching with the Brain in Mind points out that our brain actually reacts to rewards and punishments in that “rewards change the brain very rapidly, and what worked well before ceases to work” again (Jenson, 2005, 106). Not to mention the fact that “what one student finds rewarding may not be rewarding to another” (Jenson, 2005, 106).  Therefore, Jensen states that what needs to be activated is INTRINSIC MOTIVATION (a student’s natural curiosity to learn) and “making content more relevant by linking it to students’ lives is” one way to do this (Jenson, 2005, 106).

The Reason: I want my kids to write like I did in that class. As Tom Romano once said: “I want writing to become second nature to students…as natural for them as slipping on sandals. I want them to know writing is a mighty ally that stands with them, whether they write from the heart or tackle mandatory writing tasks that have been thrust upon them” (“Teach Writing from the Inside”, 2007). Our own Common Core Standards state that for students, writing is a key means of asserting and defending claims, showing what they know about a subject, and conveying what they have experienced, imagined, thought, and felt. They need to be given choice, and time, in order to do this. I want to create an environment in my classroom where students get sustained engagement with writing that matters to them, a way to express themselves through writing that will stick with them for the rest of their lives, like Mrs. Krystow did for me.


My Plan:

  • Quickwrite each day with poems and short mentor texts
  • Study Mentor Texts
  • Set up writing experiences that truly matter
  • Conference weekly with students about their process
  • Have students keep a Writer’s Notebook where they are encouraged to take risks in their writing

Questions for you –

What’s your story?  Did you ever write something that became near and dear to you?  How can that help you become a better teacher?  What steps might be in your plan?

Celebrate Music and Literacy by taking advantage of Elizabeth’s book Inspired by Listening, a teacher resource book that focuses on how to use listening experiences in your classroom to inspire all kinds of writing (including sentence and paragraph writing, poetry and narratives), reading strategies (including visualization and main idea) and even grammar practice; all while listening to music that you love.  The book is on sale this month only (March) at 20% off!

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Article by Kristina Peterson

Kristina Peterson is a certified English teacher and has been teaching at Exeter High School since 2008. She has a B.A. in Literature from the University of Southern Maine and an M.A.T. from George Fox University. She keeps in touch with the ever-changing educational practices through extensive continuing education at UNH. She recently presented at the 2012 National Convention for Teachers of English in Las Vegas about the importance of choice in reading and writing. She co-advises the poetry section of Inkwell (EHS literary magazine), the EHS Writer's Club, Page Turners (a book club), and the annual Poetry Out Loud contest. She blogs for The Inspired Classroom about the importance of maintaining creativity in the classroom and is leading a session at the third annual Teacher Arts Retreat this summer.
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  1. This is very inspirational, Kristina! I know I have done some of those types of projects: my fifth grade magazine project, my 7th grade “all about me” project. Those are the things we remember as being motivational. And that’s what we want for our students.

    I just finished a unit on writing narratives with my fourth graders in preparation for our state testing. The kids were so encouraged by the intense work we did and were, dare I say, excited to write something for the test. I sent them home yesterday with their folders of all the work they had done over the last two months showing the growth they had made. I know that some of those students will keep that folder or at least show it off to their families. It is something to be proud of and it proved to be motivating!

    Now I just need to do more of that…

  2. Kristina,

    It’s great to hear that teachers are not just teaching to the test. In MA it’s MCAS mania right now. I think your ideas will help students feel good about their writing and encourage them to do it more often, and that’s the key, too, to want to do it!

    • Kristina Peterson says:

      Thanks Judy! I sure hope my kids feel good about their writing, and writing in general. After all, writing is something they will need for the rest of their lives.

  3. susan says:

    Kristina Peterson continues to inspire educators to take the long view and remember the key in learning is for students to create meaning, not only in English but all courses. When we ask them to make personal connections to poetry, mentor texts, music, and art, they begin thinking critically, analyzing and making sense of their world, our world, which can be a confusing place. And the best … they begin to write with their minds and their hearts. The reward for their teachers is something good to read. Kristina, you continue to amaze me.

    • Kristina Peterson says:

      Wow! Thanks Susan! I don’t even know what to say. It’s supportive colleagues like you that help me expand my own comfort levels and branch out.

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