A good teacher is still a student. Education is a continuous cycle without an age limit; you don’t get to 60 years old and somehow know all of the answers. I guess one of the most important lessons is understanding that principle: we are always still learning.
If you’re a working teacher, you are most likely one of your students’ mentors– who they look to when they have a question. If you’re an aspiring teacher, you are both motivated and scared of that possibility and responsibility. But whether or not you’re a working or aspiring teacher of writing, you’ve probably thought to yourself “WWJD”: what would Jim do?
As an aspiring teacher of writing, I hope to have the same impact on the field as Jim Burke. So when I’m staring helplessly at a blank lesson plan, I will pray to Jim Burke for guidance and flip through the bible for some answers. During my time of desperation, I will remember the three E’s:
Burke describes that each class and assignment should be, “emotionally and intellectually engaging to all students.” This idea emphasizes the importance of choice in the students’ education– this could mean giving some freedom when it comes to choosing the texts and topics they read and write about. When creating an assignment, consider designing three potential topics and allowing the students to choose which they resonate with the most.
“More than writing to learn, I want my students to use writing to think.”Jim Burke
When we start to shift the focus from writing to learn to the more holistic view Burke suggests, students are more actively engaged in their writing. Relatedly Ken Lindbloom and Leila Christenbury write, “bringing student writers into the real world of writing creates greatly enhanced opportunities and can truly set fire to student’s engagement, creativity, and empowerment.”
We want to use writing to create critical thinkers and you can’t do that if they don’t care about what they’re doing.
In order to properly engage students, we cannot overlook the importance of experience in this equation. Rather than viewing assessments as a “prompt”, Burke urges us to look at it as an experience.
“They are carefully designed experiences meant to teach and transform, to educate and engage.”Jim Burke
It’s crucial to not separate these ideas: it’s like a continuum. You can’t engage your students without creating an experience for your students.
NCTE states, “writers grow when they have a range of writing experiences and in-depth writing experiences.” The more variety we give them, the more experience they will have. The more experience they have, the more they will grow.
You also can’t create an experience without considering your student’s previous experience. NCTE states, “everything they have experienced, who they are, where they have been, and what they have done impact their writing practices, literacies, and language attitudes.” Writing is so closely tied to identity, so everything a person has experienced influences the writing experience. That cannot be ignored in the classroom.
When considering the student’s experience, empathy also needs to be present. Burke urges us to, “work fully to understand the experience of the user for whom you are designing. Do this through observation, interaction, and immersing yourself in the experiences.” If we are interacting with our students during the writing process, we are more aware of the struggles they may be facing.
“I want students to have experience in navigating the real challenges that come up in any act of writing. This means I have to let them in on what authentic process is like.“Ann Elroy Whitney
By being vulnerable in front of students, we are putting ourselves in the same space as the students; what better way to understand what we are asking our students to do than do it with them and let them in on the process?
So WWJD? Teach effectively by engaging your students and focusing on their experience while never withholding empathy. Sounds easy, right? Definitely not. But that’s why we, as teachers, never stop learning from people such as Jim Burke.