And I've never been good at teaching writing. I think that's because I never was taught how to write. I was given writing instruction, sure, but the attitude of my teachers was that writing was something you just got better at when you practiced more. They focused on helping me develop my ideas and not so much on how to structure those ideas so they made sense to the reader.
That might be giving them too much credit. I don't remember ANYONE telling me how to write. I do remember being encouraged to write on a variety of subjects in low-stakes assignments, but that was mostly in college English classes.
I also remember my creativity being discouraged actively, mostly in high school.
My high school grammar teacher (we spent half the year in literature, and half in grammar) would give us daily journals. We had to write 20 lines, and the topics were things like, "Imagine sliding down a hill" or "What is a song you like, and why do you like it?"
So I decided to start writing an epic short story. One that would incorporate the topic every day, but would be about this community of elves. Ones that had mysterious adventures, like sliding down hills while composing their own inspirational tunes. Where characters were developed and put in situations where they could be tested, or they could demonstrate their true nature.
After two weeks, she collected our journals. I waited for her feedback anxiously, as I believed my Elf Soap Opera was my greatest writing achievement yet.
I still remember what she wrote at the bottom of the last journal entry:
This is not appropriate and if you continue to not write about the assigned topics, I will give you a zero on every one. In fact, I will give you a zero if you even use the word "elf" in another journal.
I cared too much about my grade to push it any farther. But it was just another event, in a long string of events, that convinced me that I needed to stop believing that people would understand me or see me for who I really was.
I got an A in that class. But my writing didn't improve; in fact, my confidence as a writer dropped significantly, as a result of having a teacher who meant well, but couldn't see me as anything except a kid trying to get out of an assignment.
I never wrote on a creative topic again in high school.
I had forgotten about that until a student in my Essay class mentioned that he had done something similar and had a similar consequence for it. He asked me what I would have done if he had done that for my class. My answer was simple: I would have written him a comment that told him what I liked about it. If it didn't meet the requirements of the assignment, I would ask that he make sure he did that next time.
This was in the context of a discussion about how writing instruction is done here at the school. What my students said was that, at this level, there are just expected to know how to write already. They said that, other than a few comments on essays and a grade, they hadn't had much instruction in how to improve their writing. They knew how to write a five-paragraph essay. But when asked to do a creative topic, they would completely blank out.
They started naming things they wished they could have had in their English classes:
- individual writing conferences, where they are given specific feedback on what to improve and how to deal with problems they struggled when writing in general
- freedom to write something without obsessing about a grade
- the ability to explore interesting ideas without worrying about how many sentences in a paragraph, or how many paragraphs were required
- instruction on how to take their ideas and make it work in writing
- help in developing and honing their voice as a writer
Basically, the exact same goals I had for them at the start of the class.
We did one-on-one conferences (took three weeks of class time), and when I asked them if that had been helpful (and worth the three weeks it took), they said it was probably the most helpful thing we did all semester.
I disconnected writing from grading. Nothing they wrote for me received a grade (with three exceptions, which I'll talk about in a minute). If they completed the assignment, they got 100%. If they didn't complete it or it didn't meet the requirements, it got a 0%. My theory was that frequent writing practice would build their confidence and ability, and that they had to stop seeing writing as a transaction; good writing evolves and develops, and the idea only ever grading first drafts is not attractive to me.
Andrew Thomasson and I do a lot of writing together (like, at the same time in a shared Google Doc), so this has really helped me refine my theory on writing instruction. We have written numerous guest posts (including one next week for the 12 Days of Dreaming project over at Educational Dreamer) and what we have found is that our first drafts suck. Sure, they say what we think we want to say, but they never say what we NEED to say. It takes a lot of refining (and often starting over altogether) to find the version we think represents us best. If our first draft was published, it would be far less than mediocre, and not even a glimmer of what the final product ends up being.
I apply that principal to my students - some drafts are worth refining, and others aren't. That's why the three assignments I am actually grading are:
- The essay they chose to have a writing conference on. Their task was to revise it after their conference, given the feedback and discussion we had. I only graded it on the things I asked them to work on. Most of the time, that was a bit of structure, a bit of organisation, and a bit of concept.
- The final essay, which is a synthesis of about 50% of the writing they did over the entire course. It included short descriptive vignettes, which Andrew and I call an "Exploded Image." It included making an argument and supporting it with evidence. It included a narrative structure that used elements of a narrative toolkit we developed. So in effect, I'm grading their ability to perform all those various tasks successfully, as well as their ability to synthesise the information.
- Their analysis of their own voice and how it has developed in this class. The assignment is here if you're interested. It yielded some interesting results. The reason I'm grading this one is that I want to see their analytical ability, as well as their ability to find patterns (another of the course mega-themes).
Those are the only assignments graded in a more traditional way. The rest is credit/no credit. My students told me that it was liberating to be able to write without worrying about points being deducted for a misspelled word, or an incomplete transition. They also said it allowed them to try on different styles and experiment with ideas that aren't typically found in an "academic" writing assignment. Some of those yielded the most successful pieces of the semester for my students.
As to helping them find their voice and develop their ideas, the way I did that was through a lot of discussion and feedback. We wrote every essay in class. During that time, I would work with individual students on how to best get across their idea and how to make it sound like their authentic voice. We also had collaborative partnerships, where students would help each other by reading and making comments on ideas only - not on grammar or spelling or other mechanics. Sometimes they would comment on structure and organisation, but mostly it was about helping the writer develop ideas. We had discussions about purpose and audience, and how style influenced and was influenced by both the purpose and audience. I showed them my writing, and they took it apart. We did the same with some of theirs.
Here's what I didn't teach:
- That writing should be a single draft activity, where we write something then move on to something else
- That structure is more important than content
- That the five-paragraph essay is valuable
- That all genres of writing are the same, and use the same structures
- That there are strict rules that all writers follow
- That the most important thing is completion
- That writing is an individual activity
- That we should never experiment or try new ideas
- That there are "right answers" in writing
- That the teacher is the audience for all of their writing
I have the great privilege of teaching students who have a lot of training in basic essay structure, who have great vocabularies, and who have great academic behaviours. Their struggles are more with anything that is different from what they are used to - they haven't been asked to be creative or collaborative much, unless it's in structured ways.
I know that this is probably more freedom than many teachers have, and that my students' academic background is much stronger than most. But I also see that their writing at the beginning of the semester has improved dramatically. They went from writing five-paragraph-style essays, and now have much more complex systems of organisation that will serve them well in college. Their descriptive and observational writing is so much stronger, and vivid.
And they feel something I never felt in high school: that their voice, what make them unique, is valued by a teacher. That they can be themselves - even if that is something still in the process of being developed and refined. That they don't have to worry about a grade and can take risks. That they have peers who understand and support them, and will help them become better writers.
That their writing is, like them, a work in progress.