Teaching style

When I was a student teacher, I remember one veteran teacher saying, “Well, the truth is that some students will never really become good writers.  They’re just tone deaf.” As I’ve continued to grow and develop as a teacher of writing, I just don’t buy it.

Yes, some students are more skilled at “hearing it.”  But all students arrive in class with an ear for good language.  They know how to carry a conversation, craft a punchline, recognize a great line in a movie.  

All students can learn to make their sentences sing.  Yes, even mediocre writers can learn to craft great-sounding lines. And then they’re no longer mediocre writers. They’re budding stylists.

I’m a big believer in teaching specific style strategies, and I’ve had great success with the following techniques:

  • Crafting a short, poppy sentence for an important point
  • Using the colon and the dash for drama
  • Saving the best part of the sentence for the end of the sentence
  • Recognizing that words and phrases often sound best in a group of three
  • Using repetition for dramatic effect

All these strategies are relatively simple, both to recognize and to master.  I often use sportswriting and other magazine-type writing as examples, and I’ve loved “Running for their Lives” each year I’ve taught it.  Then, I ask students to use these exact style strategies in another piece, preferably a memoir-based one.  

And here’s what happens:  all students, even the struggling ones, the ones who never saw themselves as writers, learn these strategies quickly.  Then, they’re proud, so proud in fact that they volunteer to share their work in class.  We listen, we applaud, we compliment.  Students are now playing with language, hearing it on the page, crafting sentences that sing.  And we’ve created a culture that celebrates great writing.

Students are now ready to flex these style muscles in analytical pieces.  And while there’s more work to do, they are, most certainly, on their way.

All students speak: Two-minute rotating partner shareout

English is a discussion-based class.  I want students to interact with what we read and, ultimately, to craft their own interpretations.   The class of my dreams involves discussion, debate, questioning, the great back-and-forth that leaves everyone leaning forward in their seat, their eyes completely alive.

But in almost every class, some students learn to lean back, allowing someone else to grapple with a particular concept or tricky passage.  It’s easier, safer to listen.  Truth be told, I’m like this too.

Although I regularly use small-group discussions, I also regularly use another tool:  the two-minute rotating partner shareout.  After grouping students in pairs, I’ll pose the question to discuss.  Then, I announce, “You have two minutes to have a conversation.  Go.”

It’s clear that everyone’s expected to participate.  And the low lull of voices makes it safer for the introverted listeners, who often have great ideas that they hesitate to share.  The time deadline, for some reason, makes it both more manageable and more urgent.

For this activity, I often choose questions I’m sure everyone can answer.  With our current study of Camus’s novel The Stranger, I’ve asked, “Do you like the narrator and why does it matter?” or after a discussion of a chapter towards the end, “What, then, does Camus want us to think about judgment in society?  Do you agree?” or “What do you notice about the first paragraph of the chapter?”

Then, after two minutes, I have students switch to a new partner.  The new discussion prompt:  either share exactly the same thing (the safe move) or share the great points that your previous partner made or share the direction your previous conversation went.  You have two-minutes.  Go.

Here’s why I like this technique:  After four minutes, everyone has had a voice.  Everyone has been forced (or encouraged :)) to share their interpretationsEveryone has practiced articulating the ideas bouncing around their brains.  And it’s the rare student who remains tuned out in a partner discussion.  Another bonus:  students move.

And hopefully, those listening students will gradually gain more confidence in their ability to articulate their thoughts.   Then, the next time we’re in the midst of a great class discussion, they’ll jump right in.