Full disclosure: I'm one of those people who obsessively looks up every little reference in a novel. In the old days, this meant (gasp) looking at the footnotes and using actual reference books. The Internet has made this much, much less tedious. But bookdrum.com makes it even easier. And more awesome.
Let's say you're reading The Kite Runner (which in my humble opinion is the To Kill a Mockingbird of this generation). If you toodle over to bookdrum.com, you will find this page to give you background on the text. There's the usual stuff like a glossary, summary, and review, but the coolest thing is the bookmarks function. Basically readers can add a quote from any part of the book and provide context or commentary on it.
The bookmark section layout looks a lot like a wikipedia article, but all information is linked to specific phrases or passages from the book. For example:
How cool is that? Bookdrum.com, where were you when I was teaching The Kite Runner? Well, at least we've met now.
I'm a big fan of the building-on-your-strengths school of thought. I can expend energy trying to be someone I'm not (e.g., a humorist), or I can put that energy to work in a direction that's natural for me. But when it comes to teaching writing, sometimes the educator's greatest asset can be his or her own insecurities.
Recently I gave a talk for a group of pre-service teachers taking a course in writing instruction. My biggest message to them was to be real with their students when it comes to writing. I asked the future teachers how many of them felt challenged or frustrated by writing--at least some of the time. When hands went up, I promised them that this was a good thing.
Make mistakes and let your students see the mistakes. The job of the writing teacher is not to teach students a particular "proper" form of writing but to help them find their process to do many kinds of writing. This can only happen when teachers present themselves as students of writing as well.
I don't know about you, but as a beginning tennis player, I'd much rather practice with someone who's got tricks I don't know but who is still learning as well. The same goes for students. It's time to ditch the notion of the teacher as "pro" and start thinking of the teacher as a partner who can still miss some serves.
And it's critical for students to see that--in writing--sometimes what seemed to be missed serves can turn out to be aces. I often show students how writing that I thought was "trash" had the seeds to important scenes in my novels.
Now, nothing is scarier than being vulnerable with students, especially when teaching older kids (or, worse, teachers themselves!). But this is critical if we want the writers we're working with to take risks and to do writing that actually matters. Until students see the teacher as a fellow writer and learner, they will simply write to fulfill requirements and see that teacher as an arbitrary judge of a product that they (the students) don't really care much about anyway.
When teachers also engage in the writing process and share the imperfect work that they are doing, students become willing to invest in their writing.
P.S. The idea of showing weakness and talking through how we deal with challenge applies in other spheres, too. As Liam has just turned one, we are realizing that one of the best ways we can help him deal with challenges and struggles (mostly related to self-control) is to model outloud our own dealings with frustration. Arnulfo and I walk around saying things like, "Darn it, I can't find my keys. It's so frustrating when this happens. I really want to get mad, but I think it will be easier for me to solve this problem if I stay calm. Hmmm, what can I do to change what's bothering me. I know, I'll ask for help..." This is pretty dorky, but I hope it will be effective eventually.
Possibly I have given the impression that my days teaching in Houston were nothing but hard work and success. This is what happens when you tell about challening experiences through the blessed buffer of years. In fact, though, this page from an old writer's notebook reminded me how teaching can equal great challenge (and great rewards), but also some pretty big heartbreaks at times, especially when best efforts are met with disregard or outright hostility.
Here's the next page from my writer's notebook, full of antidotes for dealing with a doozy of a bad day. (A transcript follows in case you can't read my scribbles.)
From Brian Andreas's Traveling Light:
No hurt survives for long without our help.
Anyone can slay a dragon, he told me, but try waking up every morning and loving the world all over again. That's what takes a real hero.
Wisdom from A.P. (aka Arnulfo):
Just do your job tomorrow, and that'll be enough.
Stop worrying about the whole world.
Know what you are going to do when things don't go how you expect them to.
Don't expect things to go a certain way.
Know who you are on the inside, and let that be enough.