Renew! Become a Better – and More Authentic – Writing Teacher
reviewed by Kelly Tracy - March 15, 2018
Title: Renew! Become a Better – and More Authentic – Writing Teacher
Author(s): Shawna Coppola
Publisher: Stenhouse Publishers, Portland
ISBN: 1625311044, Pages: 113, Year: 2017
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Shawna Coppola begins her book, Renew! Become a Better and More Authentic Writing Teacher, with an important premise: teachers of writing must continually rethink, revise, and renew (p. 10) their practice. She suggests that through a willingness to reflect on and change practice, educators honor the individuality of our student writers, the uniqueness of each community of learners, and the ever-changing global landscape (p. 10). After offering a framework for engaging in the work of revising practice, Coppola goes on to discuss how educators can apply the framework to common educational practices in writing instruction. At the heart of everything that she suggests are the needs of the students in the classroom.
Coppola acknowledges that changing teaching practice is not an easy task, particularly given that teaching is heartbreakingly, back-achingly, mind-numbingly difficult work (p. 10). To assist readers in engaging in the difficult task of revising practice, she draws on her experiences as an educator and parent, sharing her failures and successes and how she has often changed her assumptions. For example, Coppola dedicates her second chapter to revisiting the way writing process is taught. She describes how, early in her teaching career, she engaged in the pervasive practice of teaching students a linear writing process, forcing them to adhere to it lock-step. She explains how she came to rethink this idea and modified her teaching so that it helped students to see the many possibilities of the writing process. Since research has long held that writing is a recursive process (e.g., Flower & Hayes, 1981; Pritchard & Honeycutt, 2005), Coppola is not necessarily sharing anything new in that regard; however, she contends that the thousands of YouTube videos and Pinterest pins promoting writing as a linear process demonstrate its lasting popularity among teachers. Thus, there remains a need for educators to rethink the way they understand and teach writing process.
What many readers may find most helpful are the concrete ideas Coppola shares to help educators teach writing differently, including looking to the authentic processes of favorite authors and illustrators, for which she offers multiple resources. These sorts of ideas and suggestions to renew teaching practice are found throughout the book with each chapter following a similar structure. Coppola often begins with a vignette about her own aha moment, describes what the literature says about a topic while giving several examples from the classroom, explains why rethinking is needed, and then offers possibilities for renewing writing instruction. She does this in a non-overwhelming way, always pointing back to the student writers in the room. Her book urges readers to rethink how they define composition, encouraging them to reevaluate the significance of visuals and how written text is privileged in the classroom. She continues by discussing ways to rethink the tools used in the classroom for writing (e.g., graphic organizers, revision checklists, writing prompts, etc.). She encourages teachers to find ways to help student writers create their own tools as a more sustainable, long-term strategy than the use of the pre-made ones so often used. However, Coppola is careful to say that she is not suggesting teachers abandon these tools; rather, as she puts it, she is advocating for a more balanced approach (p. 69).
For many teachers, perhaps the biggest changes that Coppola suggests in Renew! come in her chapter on assessment. When Coppola examines assessment, she addresses an issue that many educators grapple with in teaching writing: developing writers while also being required to evaluate them. She clearly differentiates between assessment and evaluation, and pushes back against the notion of reducing student writing to a single numerical score. From the heading Renewing Assessment Practice (While Subverting Evaluation and Reporting Mandates) (p. 82), Coppolas stance is clear. Again, she puts the students front and center when she suggests that teachers allow students to take on a much larger role in their own assessment and grading.
Coppola concludes her book with encouragement for teachers to write themselves, outside of school and for academic purposes, so they can better understand (and thus teach) writing. She acknowledges the continued debate over the premise that teachers need to write, stating that she is unable to back up her assertion with statistics on improved student writing based solely on teachers doing their own writing. Rather, she supports her idea through her experience both on a personal level and working with other educators as they engage in writing and become part of a community of writers. As she has done in other chapters, Coppola offers concrete suggestions for incorporating writing into teachers lives.
Renew! is brief and engaging, a quick read for busy educators. As Thomas Newkirk states in his forward, it is the sort of book to read with a cup of tea, on an unhurried weekend afternoon away from the din of football the kind of time youd like to spend with an outgoing friend with an irrepressible sense of humor (p. ix). Those looking for radical change or ground-breaking ideas for their writing classroom could potentially be disappointed in this book. However, those looking for a way to reflect on and refresh their writing instruction will find value in what Coppola brings. For many, her balanced approach will offer support to some of their current practices while pushing them to make their teaching better, more current, and more student-centered. As one reads, there is a sense of I can do this, which is likely to be more beneficial than asking teachers to completely throw out what they know. At the very least, the reader walks away reflective, and there is certainly benefit to that.
Flower, L., & Hayes, J.R. (1981). A cognitive process theory of writing. College
Composition and Communication, 32(4), 365387.
Pritchard, R. J., & Honeycutt, R. L. (2005). The process approach to writing instruction: Examining its effectiveness. In C. A. McArthur, S. Graham, & J. Fitzgerald (Eds.), Handbook of writing research (pp. 275290). New York, NY: Guilford Press.