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?


Full disclosure: Amazon links are affiliate links and will kickback a small portion to me when you buy. Thank you for your support!

The best books on teaching English for the High School classroom teacher

My goal here is to share with you the best books that can amplify your teaching abilities. I will maintain this list with all the best books English teachers need in their pedagogical library. I will not recommend a book here unless I have both read it and implemented its practices to positive effect. I hope they help you as much as they have helped me.

At the beginning of my journey as a teacher, I always wondered where to go to get better. I had a mentor in my department to whom I went for questions and difficult problems, but I had nowhere for advice about improving my craft in a systematic way. I read many of the recommendations from my teaching courses like What Great Teachers Do Differently, and I nibbled on the small bits of articles and bona fide research that was available online. I grew as a teacher; my classroom management improved; and my brain developed to think about curriculum as a year long process of learning.

But I was still left wanting something specific to my subject. How could I best teach reading, writing, speaking, and listening? I had a few great lessons and a few great failures, but most of my teaching was a mediocre bag of tricks that I developed on a whim. I aligned with Texas state standards rigorously, but it never resonated with students.

During a discussion about books on pedagogy, a colleague recommended Kelly Gallagher’s Write Like This and lent me her copy. The book forced me to realize ideas that I had known all along but which traditional pedagogy education had made me forget. It opened up a world of literacy education that I didn’t know existed before and improved my life as a teacher. From there I discovered Kelly’s other books along with a cohort of other insightful educators eager to share their expertise.

My goal here is to share with you the best books that can amplify your teaching abilities. I will maintain this list with all the best books English teachers need in their pedagogical library. I will not recommend a book here unless I have both read it and implemented its practices to positive effect. I hope they help you as much as they have helped me.

180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents

Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle

It is hard to overstate how large an impact this book has had on my own teaching. It chronicles a year of teaching as Kelly and Penny cocreate a curriculum of reading, writing, speaking, and listening. I have always loved teaching, but before reading and implementing this book my mindset was that teaching was my “labor of love.” This masterpiece changed that mindset to simply “I love teaching.”

My mindset changed when Kelly and Penny reframed my view of the classroom. I always knew I was a learner, but I didn’t know how to be a learner in front of my students. KG and PK explain the importance of reading and writing with your students. Reading and –most of all — writing in front of my students made me a learner in their eyes. Showing students my own writing engaged them. I got to tell them stories and show them parts of myself that they wouldn’t have known otherwise. Students get to see you make decisions in your writing, providing a model for them in their own work.

If you buy one book from this list, let it be this one.

Write Like This: Teaching Real-World Writing Through Modeling & Mentor Texts

Kelly Gallagher

This is the book that started my transformation as a teacher that taught a focussed, framed lesson with cookie-cutter writing into one that teaches the messy business that is real-world writing. Kelly makes the argument that students don’t need cookie-cutter. They need the real-world if they are going to hope to succeed in college or post-secondary careers.

After convincing you that real-world writing needs to be put on the frontburner, he shows you how to teach according to different, dual purposes such as “Express and Reflect” and “Inform and Explain.” He scaffolds the material from small, word or sentence sized writing into larger quickwrites and then full essays and papers. It’s the best guide at making the writing we do in classrooms relevant and real.

In the Middle: A Lifetime of Learning About Writing, Reading, and Adolescents

Nancie Atwell

In the Middle is a book designed for middle school literacy teachers, but the lessons and principles hold true for secondary teachers as well. Many of the lessons will work as-is in high school classrooms, and others can be easily modified for high school use.

The value of this book is in seeing Nancie’s process as a workshop teacher. She takes you through many scenarios of students having difficulties. She presents a solution and explains how it has impacted her teaching since. It provides lists of essential mini-lessons for reading and writing students and how to organize them. It has everything. This is an essential read for any English teacher using a workshop style classroom.


Disclosure: All links are Amazon affiliate links.