Writing, a Model That Imitates Life: Teacher Testimonial from Johannah Mackin

Feb 21, 2020 | Posted by the IEW Blog Team


We recently received this powerful testimonial from Johanna Mackin, a middle school teacher in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Hoping that it will inspire other teachers, we are pleased to be able to share it with you below.


I’ve been teaching in a private, classical Christian school in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, since 2007. I taught third graders for ten years using a variety of language arts curricula. In 2016, I transitioned to a middle school literature position, which included instruction in writing, vocabulary, spelling, reading, and grammar. It was often an overwhelming task to teach all these areas well, and I struggled to integrate my reading and writing lessons, as each requires its own set of skills to learn and practice. For the first two years, I used the Claim-Quote-Explain technique, also called the PEEL method to teach writing, and supplemented those lessons with lessons from Purdue’s OWL resources and other online writing programs. I still had a high level of frustration because the content I taught felt very fragmented and disconnected. If I felt that way as the teacher, I imagined my students felt the disconnect even more.

The writing process is so much like life, and I wanted my students to learn the importance of each step and that they could connect what they’re learning to the pursuit of their own goals and achievements in life. There are no shortcuts on the journey, at least not many that produce lasting results. There are ways to be more efficient while achieving the same outcomes, but shortcuts only cut short our growth. I knew these things to be true in writing, but I couldn’t find the system to prove it! I was teaching the students to ask all the right questions like why? When? How? Where? And who?

I knew my students had wells of knowledge to pull from after spending their elementary years in the grammar stage of classical education. These were intelligent kids sitting in my classroom. I didn’t want to ask all the questions and have them regurgitate the same answers over and over again. I wanted them to start asking the questions and then begin searching for the answers themselves. I knew metacognition and the process of writing were a marriage of sorts. I knew writing was the vehicle to enhance and express their thinking and learning. I also knew that they would need to wrestle with abstract ideas and use logic and reasoning, argument and debate to clarify those ideas.

This is the stage when the students begin to use the tools mastered in the grammar phase. They begin to define their terms, make logical statements, build an argument, and recognize fallacies in others. In The Lost Tools of Learning, Dorothy Sayers says, “They [the teachers] are doing for their pupils the work which the pupils themselves ought to do. For the sole true end of education is simply this: to teach men how to learn for themselves; and whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain.”

My best efforts were in vain. I was unable to pull together quality resources in a way that streamlined the writing and thinking process for my students. Sayers goes on to say that “although we often succeed in teaching our pupils ‘subjects,’ we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think? They learn everything, except the art of learning.” I was a writer but was stumped on how to teach my students to write.

During my first year of teaching middle school literature, I decided to write a book. My great-great grandfather was a famous hymn writer and evangelist, and I wanted to write about his life and his legacy. The writing process took three years, and every hour I wasn’t teaching, grading, sleeping, and caring for my own family was spent writing. One year into writing my own manuscript, my curriculum director informed the faculty that we would be using IEW for our writing curriculum. We spent several weeks in the summer of 2016 watching videos and becoming familiar with the teacher and student manuals. We knew about invention, structure, and style, and we were excited to add to that the models and imitation that IEW was proposing. “The structural units of our syllabus are relatively simple patterns for organizing different forms of compositions. They are easy to teach and easy to practice. This is a form of imitation, a discipline which lies at the foundation of learning any art well, whether music, painting, dance, or writing,” said Andrew Pudewa. The challenge would be nothing new for me as I began to plan my lessons to include IEW units. I began teaching Unit 1 to my seventh and eighth grade classes. The lesson plans included in the Teacher’s Manual were straightforward right down to the daily objectives and materials needed. I told my students that this was new curriculum for them and for me, and that together we were taking a journey toward learning new skills and sharpening our tools.

I told my classes I could only promise one thing, and that would be that both they and I would make mistakes. I also promised them that I wouldn’t give up on them if they promised not to give up on me. The best teachers are learning right alongside their students, and I wanted to be that kind of teacher. And so the journey began. Slowly we were becoming better learners, better thinkers, better at asking questions, better writers, and better communicators. IEW includes nine units, and each unit has several lessons which take a week at a time to finish. Students learn to outline using key words from passages in Unit 1. Unit 2 includes Writing from Notes. Unit 3 is Retelling Narrative Stories. Unit 4 is Summarizing a Reference. Unit 5 is Writing from Pictures. Unit 6 is Summarizing Multiple References. Unit 7 is Inventive Writing. Unit 8 is Formal Essays, and Unit 9 is Formal Critique.

One of my favorite parts of IEW is the dress-ups, sentence openers, and www.asia clauses that students must use in their writing. It doesn’t matter if the student comes into the program lacking grammar or writing practice. IEW levels the playing field among students and allows them to work at their own level but with the same standards and expectations. This past year I had several new students who had not been through the classical model of learning. They could not identify nouns, verbs, or prepositions. They also had very little experience writing sentences and paragraphs. IEW taught them the models and then gave them the choices in style. It was autonomy and freedom within a rigid structure, and it really worked.

I saw kids go from hating the writing process to having it become their favorite part of literature class. They learned how to organize their thoughts, their words, their outlines, their paragraphs, their papers, their notebooks, and they had a blast doing it. They have rubrics as they write, so they know what is expected, and then they use the checklist to edit their own work as they go. They get immediate feedback, a chance for peers to edit their work, and time to revise and rewrite.

Because of IEW my students have learned the value of process and not just a final product. They have learned patience and persistence. They’ve found out they have grit and substance and that they can do hard things. In a culture that worships instant gratification and instant rewards, IEW flies in the face of that by teaching students to think, to ask questions, to seek the truth, to clarify, to define their terms, to simplify, and to work out the process. In the process of all that hard work, they found out that writing is indeed a lot like life.

Johannah Mackin
Providence Christian Academy
Murfreesboro, TN

P.S. I finished writing my book and used the same skills I taught my students in my own writing process!!

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