In a book club discussion recently I mentioned a mantra I try to remember frequently in my classroom, “Teach the writer, not the writing.” (It’s second only to the mantra, “Shut up.” that I repeat to myself constantly.) I didn’t come up with this, it’s from Carl Anderson’s book, how’s it going? (At least, I think it’s that one of his books. It’s definitely his.) I’ve had it printed out and stuck to the clipboard I carried around the classroom during writing conferences. I needed that reminder that I wasn’t trying to help a kid make that piece of writing perfect but to improve their writing skills through that piece of writing.
It struck a chord with others in the book club. Which means I’ve been thinking about it more too.
If I were to print it out now and stick on a clipboard (if I carried a clipboard around anymore), I would modify it. I would have it say, “Teach the kid, not the skill or content.”
Maybe because this mantra came into my teaching life fairly early on and it’s been a part of my teaching of writers for so long, it feels easy there. I am comfortable using a piece of writing or an idea for writing and helping young children become better writers. That piece of writing may not be phenomenal after we work together, but I feel confident my students are gaining writing skills they can use long term (at least the majority of the time – not all conferences go as well as I’d like).
In reading or in math I find this much harder. Especially math. When a child isn’t fully understanding how to subtract a three-digit number from another three-digit number with regrouping, I find myself trying to do all I can to help them get the right answer. If that works, they may feel good about themselves, but I always feel a little hollow. It took me too long to realize that it was because I hadn’t done anything to help them long term. I may have helped them solve that one problem but I didn’t help them in a way that would mean they can solve future problems. Whether or not they get that one problem correct is far less important than whether or not they have learned something they can use in the future. Right now I think they’re often just learning to come back to me to work again.
Maybe this is because I have a stronger base of knowledge about how kids learn to write and to read than I do about how they learn math. Maybe I’m a stronger writer and reader than I am a mathematician. I don’t know. I just know that I have to do something differently in order to better help my kids as long term learners and problem solvers rather than just helping them get through that moment of challenge.