Unlearning old pedagogy in order to be a better teacher.

I taught secondary English Language Arts in the same wonderful school district in Oregon for fifteen years before I moved to Amman. For most of those years I used a six trait scoring guide for writing put out by the state education department for scoring student essays.

I wish I had an image of those scoring guides. They included traits like Ideas and Content, Organization, Word Choice, Sentence Fluency, Voice, and Conventions. These are all important elements of a well-written essay, and I didn’t spend much time questioning what the state required. I used the scoring guides without fail and without question, to be honest.

I left the state and left those scoring guides behind. I moved on, borrowed and created new scoring guides and rubrics, and didn’t think about the one from Oregon until last week.

Let me provide some context.

For the last two years I have had the opportunity and privilege to learn from workshop expert Stevi Quate. She will continue to partner with our school next year, and I have learned a ton with her.

I had an aha moment when she led our group to better understanding of the power of conferring as a strategy for teaching students to be great, confident writers.

That’s a goal-post shift right there: in Oregon, it often felt like “passing the writing so the students can graduate” was the main goal instead of supporting the students to be better, confident, and prepared writers. (To be honest, I can’t fault just Oregon for this – it was happening nationwide, and I think it was the trend of the times not too long ago.)

Back to conferring: Stevi reminded our group that it’s okay to not read a student paper in its entirety, or to even simply have a conversation about where a student is feeling stuck, especially proud, and to not read a line at all.

That was a shift from what I had done for the first fifteen years of my career. I had been a copy-editor, dutifully noting where students had singular-plural errors, underlining countless run-on sentences, and reminding students not to refer to themselves or their readers.


Stevi helped us to understand that our job in conferring is to offer a sounding board, to offer feedback, and to remind students that they have original ideas that are worth exploring and writing about.

We didn’t talk about rubrics or mechanical errors. We talked about writer’s craft, and we talked about the writer. The student.

We talked about organizing ideas, using mentor texts every day, and the craft and process of writing words that beg to be read.

We didn’t talk about essays and scoring guides.

That’s when I realized that I was recovering from fifteen years of my own learning that needed to be unlearned.

I had a scoring guide hangover.

I mentioned that there were six traits in the scoring guide that I formerly used. That was a bit misleading, as two of those traits “didn’t count.” Word choice and voice were recognized as important elements in a writer’s craft, but were deemed to be too unquantifiable to be part of a graduation requirement.

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Teaching writing isn’t about editing, and it’s not about rubrics, but I didn’t really know that at the time. My heart was in the right place, and I wanted my students to be successful, of course, so I tried my best to help them to meet the state’s graduation requirements.

Here’s some of what I was taught about what’s important in student writing:

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But the state didn’t just say that word choice and voice didn’t count. They went on to say that conventions were worth double, so I soldiered on with my grammar practice.

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I used some instructional strategies that I’d been taught and that I’d seen other teachers do, like Daily Oral Language practice, where students made grammatical corrections to incorrect sentences that were projected to the big screen. Problem was that students didn’t transfer that practice to their own writing.

While working with Stevi last week, I was reminded that writing isn’t about mechanics and conventions. It’s about heart. It’s about ideas. It’s about audience and purpose. It’s about craft. It’s about connecting to a reader.

I realized how profoundly different the workshop model is compared to what I had been taught to value before “discovering” this new model.

I realized that focusing on conventions “doubly”- I’m not sure how I really did that – was perhaps the worst way to approach teaching writing.

I realized that by not focusing as much on word choice and voice I was ignoring the heart of writing, and maybe the hearts of my students. 


So I have a lot to unlearn.

And I’ll go on to assert that maybe our students do, too.

The workshop model isn’t just new to many teachers, it’s new to many of our students.

They are accustomed to a teacher telling them what to read, when to read, and what to think about what they read.

They are accustomed to a teacher telling them what to write, when to write, and what to think about what they write.

They are used to making sure the commas go in the right place, and to have error-free writing, but maybe they aren’t used to finding their own voices through writing, to play with words, and to take risks with what they write and how they write.

So as I struggle with and push through some of the obstacles that I encounter in my classroom when I try to employ the workshop model, I am going to remind myself that those old scoring guides, and others like them, weren’t just something that I had to live with.

Those scoring guides, and how the students performed to those indicators, were high-stakes for our students. Conventions could determine whether or not a student graduated from high school.

What a shift.

Of course commas and semi-colons should be taught to students; I’m certainly not arguing that they aren’t important. But I’m noticing that as trends and models and initiatives shift, it’s not difficult for only teachers to navigate and learn them. It’s a shift for students, and while it might be better practice and better for students than what we were doing before, it’s important to honor the shift in thinking and habits that the students struggle with, too.

Many of us have some sort of scoring guide hangover, and I’m reminded that while I won’t compromise the expectations I have of my students, maybe I’ll be more gentle as they adjust to the workshop model, and recognize that the simple task of choosing their own books, or discussing topics they want to write about, which leads to a healthy reader’s and writer’s life, is a big, difficult, important first step that deserves pause and celebration.

I’m not going to beat myself up over what I did in the past. In fact, one of my former students said this to me over Facebook Messenger not too long ago when I was telling her about how I was switching to a workshop model:

While I appreciate her kind words, I’m still aware that she would have had a richer experience if I hadn’t assigned reading and writing about The Scarlet Letter on the first day of class.

I can’t go back, so I’ll look forward, knowing that I’m learning right along side my current students, knowing that this new pedagogy is a challenge for all of us, and that we are in it together.

Follow Julie on Twitter: @SwinehartJulie

Author: adventuresinhighschoolworkshop

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for nineteen years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, four in Amman, Jordan, and is currently in her second year teaching in Managua, Nicaragua.

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