High school English teacher as the master teaching apprentices of reading and writing

1000 years ago masters of their crafts passed down knowledge to apprentices and journeymen who studied under them in guilds . They did this because parents paid them a fee, and they needed laborers to serve their customers. Journeymen were proficient enough at their craft to get paid to do it. This occurred somewhere between two and seven years of study and practice.

Teachers, in the same way, are the masters of their subjects teaching young apprentices. By the time students leave school, they ought to be proficient enough to earn payment for their labor. If they are not prepared then we have failed them as educators.

The fact is that you are the best reader and writer in your classroom. Kelly Gallagher and Nancie Atwell have argued this in their work for many years to great effect, yet teachers are still assigning exercises instead of doing authentic writing alongside their students. As the master blacksmith pounds upon the anvil to build a shield in front of his apprentices so must English teachers craft authentic prose in front of their students.

When I made the shift from assigning exercises to working words onto the page in front of students, my whole perspective on teaching shifted. What I love, what I have a passion for, is reading and writing. Assigning exercises is boring. Doing exercises even more so. It doesn’t say as much about a student that they can follow directions and do the exercise, and they know this as well as we do. It doesn’t show that they can do real writing which is what students would rather be doing.

A master blacksmith would not assign exercises to his young apprentices. It was a waste of time and money to do so. The apprentices were given smaller, important tasks prior to taking up the full craft. Work the bellows. Drive the horses to market. Get the master’s tools when he calls for them. Fetch water. Brew some coffee for the old master while you’re at it. In the same way teachers can give students smaller, yet meaningful, tasks that constitute authentic writing tasks.

The modern world has given teachers tools to make this easy. What is more authentic and real than writing a tweet? Students (and teachers, unfortunately) consider twitter to be a frivolous platform to share the music they love, spread school gossip, and communicate with their community. We can teach them that it is a platform for engagement. It matters what you write there because everyone can read it. Not only that, but people have made careers out of writing tweets. And anyone can write 240 characters or less.

What is the next level of authentic writing? Write a journal entry. Journals too seem inauthentic. They often as not go unpublished unless you are a U.S. President or Roman Emperor. But they are authentic for this very reason. Many great men and women seem to have kept journals for so long throughout history. We could use Marcus Aurelius and Ronald Reagan as master models. Reading as Marcus, ruler of the world, chastised himself for getting out of bed too late would resonate with many teenagers (and teachers). Journals focus and clarify thinking and lend themselves to this kind of self-reflection which students these days often miss out on in favor of technology designed to reduce thinking and reflection. Journaling also lends itself to cross-curricular activities. Take a look at Marie Curie’s journals and note that they will be radioactive for another 1500 years due to her work with radioactive materials.

Along the way the master does these tasks once or more to show the apprentices an exemplar model. You’re craft won’t be perfect every time. You must show the apprentices what a master does when a mistake is made. How do you correct it or, better yet, use it to your advantage? You will also gain ideas for more authentic writing the more you write thus improving your own writing and teaching. It is a self-replenishing cycle of ideas, writing, and instruction.

Now I come to every lesson with the intention of giving my students something practical that goes beyond knowledge of English composition. Perhaps they gain some knowledge of themselves or others. Other times they will have opportunities to prove their competence in settings that go beyond the academic such as contests or professional publications. All authentic writing goes beyond academic work.

What are some ideas that you have for authentic writing?


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