Student/Classroom Spotlight: Becoming a “Recursive” writer

I’ve been spending my time at the Upper Dublin high school in an AP Language and Composition classroom. The students in this class are motivated to do well, and to do whatever it takes to get an A. The biggest challenge facing this class isn’t motivating them to write. It’s not getting them to behave. It’s not many things, but it might be to challenge them with writing, to take what they know about writing and make them better at it. 

I had no idea what to expect as I walked in to class the morning I wanted to interview one of the students. The student I interviewed, let’s call her Emily Dickinson, was an honor student. Emily is an EMT, a former firefighter jr going into nursing and she loves to write. She always has. She’s a poet and a fiction writer. She loves it because is allows her an escape, a place to vent, a level of freedom that she can’t get many other places. Even though school has generally been helpful to her writing, there have been times of clashing. Five paragraph essays. Remember those? Well, just as they were the bane of my existence, so too they really negatively affected Emily. She still remembers the acronym RACE. Restate Quote, Analyze, Cite Quote, Explain. These traditional methods of composition made it difficult for the student to adjust to her tenth grade English teacher who told her to “write what you want,” giving her the freedom to be creative and to generate ideas. Her high school writing experience varied from one teacher to the next, some were more focused on writing while others were not, some giving more leeway than others. Currently, she says, “so far this year I have questioned my assumptions about writing because now I have learned that the first draft isn’t the final draft.”

The first draft isn’t the final draft. Kirby and Crovitz, in their book Inside Out, say this about writing, “Not all writing goes well…Any first draft may be halting, awkward, or a bit chaotic. The novice writer needs to know that this feeling of hesitancy and chaos is natural, that even the best writers experience it.” (22) Emily is learning what I’m learning at the graduate level because she’s in a classroom focused on writing. The strategies that this class have been working with are being proven effective. “Walking the walk” in terms of not only saying editing is important but also going though draft after draft has made students comfortable with this idea of writing as recursive and as process.

I asked Emily what she thought about being in a class that writes as a method of learning and what were some things that she thought were unique about it. These are what she mentioned:

  • Warm-ups are great because they prepare her for class, but she doesn’t experience them often in other classes.
  • Going without a syllabus has kept her on her toes, which make her more able to be creative and spontaneous.
  • Much of her best writing actually comes from the warm-ups, which she then uses to create a larger piece.

Fun Facts about Emily:

  • Emily likes writing with metaphors because “they make the reader have to re-read her writing and because it also leaves a little more to the imagination.”
  • Emily’s non-fiction work is primarily biographical in nature. 

If you’re a writer that’s what you are, there’s no other avenue to take.  -Emily 

Just for fun

Check out National Novel Writing Month and begin your 50,000 word novel TODAY! 


Teacher/Practice Spotlight: Mr. Hillman


We need to inspire our students, as Ms. Walden is quoted as saying on Ms. Abraham’s blog.  English education has traditionally not inspired, but rather “demoralized” through inflexibility and a “one-size-fits-all” mentality. (Kirby & Crovitz, 3) This is especially true when it comes to grammar, as we’ve all experienced the meaningless activities throughout our writing careers, having been given worksheets to complete over and over again in school. The truth is that according to research grammar taught in isolation does not necessarily improve a students’ writing and may not even have a positive impact. (4) It still needs to be taught, however, but the question arises: how can we teach grammar in classrooms that emphasize writing as a process, classrooms that “[acknowledge] the value of students’ personal experiences and stories, and [promote] students’ choices in determining topics for writing,” (3)   It’s kind of a strange question to ask because writing and grammar go hand-in-hand, don’t they? Well, yes and not necessarily. A five year old can write all he wants, but won’t learn basic writing without some help. In fact, the question of grammar was the first challenge mentioned in Inside Out. Their suggestion? Kirby and Crovitz propose “that we embed small units of mini-instruction as occasions present themselves with student work.” (4) Grammar in context. Sounds great, right? It was with this concept in mind that I approached Mr. Hillman and his AP composition class.


Talk about walking into a textbook. The moment that I walked into Mr. Hillman’s classroom, it was like walking into the book Inside Out, and seeing for the first time the practices that we have been learning about with Dr. Baker-Doyle in ED605. Writing is the main part of everyday life for his students. I’ve visited Mr. Hillman a total of three times over the past ten days. Each day, in each class, he begins with a writing warm-up, an exercise designed to activate the writing minds of the students. The rest of class consists of peer-editing, reading, creating, and ultimately making a class of writers. Its fun, but also challenging and each day brings something new. In a class where getting students to write authentic, personal pieces is of the utmost importance, my question for him was this: can embedding mini grammar lessons within a writing-as-process classroom be effective grammar training? His short answer was “yes, especially with 12th graders.” Students in the upper levels of education won’t do “off the shelf” grammar lessons. It just won’t work. What needs to happen, according to Mr. Hillman, is that writing teachers (and students) need to search for patterns in writing that indicate the areas in need of improvement. The full interview can be listened to here.

Grammar tips for pre-service (and current) teachers:

  • Focus on writing fluency before focusing on control & precision.
  • In upper levels of education, full grammar lessons probably will be difficult and may not work at all.
  •  Think about teaching grammar in the context of student writing.