An Interview with Katherine S. McKnight: Righting The Writing Problem

Jan 13, 2012 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico 88130

Katherine S. McKnight is a writer, educator and consultant. Her career in education began as a high school English teacher in the Chicago Public School system more than 20 years ago. Today, she serves as an associate professor of secondary education at National Louis University and an onsite professional development consultant for the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). McKnight is the author of “The Second City Guide to Improv in the Classroom,” “The English Teacher’s Survival Guide,” “The Teacher’s Big Book of Graphic Organizers,” “Teaching Writing in the Inclusive Classroom,” “Teaching the Classics in the Inclusive Classroom” and “Teaching English in Middle and Secondary Schools.”

In this interview, she responds to questions about correcting the writing problem in America

  1. Katherine, first of all, what got you interested in writing?

I became a high school English teacher in 1988 and I personally struggled as a writer because, quite frankly, I received inadequate instruction in high school and college. I knew from my experiences as a struggling writer that tools, strategies, and ample opportunities to write were essential. As a teacher, I continued to develop writing strategies, particularly in grammar. Hands on Grammar and my earlier book, Teaching Writing in the Inclusive Classroom are the result of my tinkering in classrooms for over 20 years.

  1. Can we focus on writing- in your mind, when should writing instruction begin, and how do we hold teachers accountable for teaching writing?

Writing instruction begins early. Young children can create stories with the assistance of technology. Encouraging young children to create digital stories places them on the path to develop the understanding that writing and personal voice are powerful. Throughout school, students must be given opportunities to write that nurture individual voice while developing tools that effective writers need: grammar knowledge, sentence structure, genre, etc.

All teachers, not just English teachers are involved in developing the skills of students writers. The Write to Learn Movement in the 1980s established the synergetic connection between writing, learning, and understanding. Therefore, I believe that writing is an essential skill that must be developed through school-wide efforts.

  1. I realize and recognize that correcting grammar, syntax, spelling, dangling participles, run on sentences, sentences without verbs, sentences without subject, and writing, well, you know, it ‘s kind of like colloquial and gibberish, is time consuming and labor intensive. Any tricks of the trade?

Teach grammar, like any other language skills, deliberately. There is a significant body of research that indicates that learning language, particularly grammar, must be taught in context of student writing AND in chunks. Mini lessons are an instructional structure that meets both of these demands and my new book offers over 40 mini lessons to support teachers to implement this kind of instruction in the classroom.

I also advise in my book and to teachers across the country in my professional development seminars and workshops to incorporate multiple intelligences in the teaching of writing and grammar. Giving kids worksheets to teach grammar doesn’t work. Allowing kids to “mess” with language is key. The mini lessons in my book encourage students to “mess” with language.

  1. In this age of multiple choice, true false- fill in the Blank tests, multiple choice tests etc., It is little wonder that writing is subpar. Where is the leadership in terms of improving writing?

It’s incredibly frustrating as a literacy educator that writing becomes a forgotten literacy skill. In the schools that I visit where writing instruction IS successful, there is often a strong writing across the discipline model.

I think the most important leaders in writing instruction, and they are quite active, is the National Writing Project. Their website contains great resources and professional development and they are the most important voice in writing leadership today.

I also think that books like mine, contribute to the dialogue and leadership to create quality writing instruction in schools.

  1. How has the Internet impacted writing?

Wow, where do we begin on that topic?

The ways in which we read text, write text, create text, use text, and how text affects us has completely changed in the Information Age. Students write constantly: texting, tweeting, emailing, blogging…

Not only do students need to learn how to compose academic writing (i.e. research paper and expository essays), they also need to learn how to write and effective blog post or discussion board posts as these are becoming more and more common in college courses.

The Internet has created a greater demand on student writing skills and also requires our students to compose in many different genres.

I would also add that the notion of audience has changed dramatically as a result of the Internet. No longer does audience mean “teacher” it means, “world” because students can post writing to the Internet and it can literally be read by millions.

6)      More difficult question- how has inclusion impacted writing ? And how much time should a teacher be devoting to students with learning disabilities in writing in their classroom- or how should this be handled?

My co-authored book Teaching Writing in the Inclusive Classroom addresses this topic. ALL children deserve to be taught writing in an inclusive classroom setting. Writing workshop models are especially conducive for the teaching of writing. This model allows for differentiation and ample opportunities for students to write. Nancie Atwell, Linda Reif, Lucy Caulkins, Tom Romano, Donald Graves, and Donald Murray are foundational to the writing workshop model.

Also, technology must be integrated into writing instruction as a means to reach the needs of diverse learners and to prepare them for 21st century careers and college. Over 20 years ago, I had a physically disabled student in my sophomore English who needed to use a mouth piece to type. She did it and wrote during our writing workshop settings. Liz also composed writing with audio assist. Like her classmates, she developed her voice and thinking through writing. 7.

7. Graphic organizers- why are they important?

Graphic organizers are visual representations of information and concepts. By nature, we tend to learn in in pictures, as such, the graphic organizer is a more innate structure for processing information rather than recording information exclusively in words. In addition, since graphic organizers use visual images and words, they are more effective tools for learning for a wide variety of learners: English language learners, and students with special needs, for example. Not only are graphic organizers effective learning tools, these can also be used for assessment.

Why are graphic organizers and effective teaching and learning tool?

  1. Graphic organizers help students to focus on important and key information.
  2. We learn in pictures and graphic organizers are a visual representation of newly learned material.
  3. Organization of content information is facilitated with graphic organizers.
  1. Teaching the Classics- why do they remain relevant and salient and germane?

When I became an English teacher over 20 years ago, I was stunned when my students indicated in end of the year surveys that their favorite works we studied included Jane Austen, Beowulf, Shakespeare, and Langston Hughes, to name a few. I scratched my head and wondered why. All of my professional training indicated that I needed to use young adult literature and that students were not interested in reading the “old stuff”. I soon realized that successful teaching of the classics (particularly to struggling readers, which were the majority of my students) was grounded in instruction. I used what a learned from young adult literature advocates to rely on strategies like literature circles and reader response activities.

My students like reading many of the classics because the stories are engaging and that is the legacy and why we continue to read the “old stuff”.

  1. What have I neglected to ask?

I truly believe in inclusive education and that ALL children deserve engaging literacy instruction that develops the critical skills in reading, writing, speaking, listening and language to prepare them for the 21st century and to become powerful voices in our democratic society. Differentiated Instruction, educational technology, and varied assessments are foundational in fulfilling the promise of effective literacy instruction and learning.

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