Sunday, September 15, 2013

Shitty First (and Second and Third...) Drafts


As a future English educator, I would like to say this: I have now edited this piece 37 times since I wrote my "last" sentence, and it is still, as Hemingway put it so eloquently, shit. So let's get to it. The reading for this week focused on the one ugly, beautiful, irrevocable truth that all writers know deep in their wiry little hearts: when your page is blank, whatever is coming next is going to be the worst thing you've read all day.

I think we've all struggled with that reality at least a few times in our lives. How can we help ourselves? We've been raised through a system that promotes an idea about writing, and that idea is that a good writer writes only in permanent ink. A good writer doesn't have to scratch words out. A good writer never worries that his "backspace" button will break, because goddamn it, he or she never uses it. Think about it. How many timed writing tests do our students have to go through? Does timed writing really promote writing as a process? Does it give us much room to revise, to revisit, to grow?

I'm glad the reading tackled this subject, because it is a relevant one to any and all students of writing (and I would argue that that includes all of us). We need to understand something about writers: "They do not type a few stiff warm-up sentences and then find themselves bounding along like huskies across the 
snow" (1). And if that is something that professional writers agree on, that is something we must make sure our students understand. They cannot be discouraged from being able to re-do their work. They must comprehend the fact that writing first drafts are more akin to piling up sand for later use than forming a castle.  They must realize, through our insistence, that spilling words onto a page oftentimes looks less like a masterpiece and more like spilled words. If we instill in them this idea, and strip away the fear of that first draft, I believe that they will write. And then we can focus on improvement.

Monday, September 9, 2013

No Such Thing as a Final Draft

I often worry about one major thing when it comes to grading papers (and no, surprisingly, it isn't "time").

What I worry about is fairness.

I can tell when writing is bad-- when it is unclear, lacking purpose, overly verbose or overly concise. The only issue I have is recognizing writing that is good. What is good writing? With so many changing definitions and so many interpretations of good writing, how can I possibly be as fair? This isn't a math problem, where I can choose to only accept the final answer as a strict right or wrong. It isn't necessarily testable like the science lab reports all of us used to do in high school. The subject that we teach is inherently malleable, flexible, and subjective. How do I assess the writing of my students?

In The Six Traits of Writing by Spandel, a sentence near the very beginning that helped put my mind at ease was this: 
"When we think assessment, we usually think grading or testing. This is a very limited view. Assessment is looking within." (4)
The last part of that particular quote really strikes me. Looking within what, exactly? I believe that true writing assessment takes into consideration the writing, viewing it not as an end, but as a tool to look within the student--to truly understand the thoughts and ideas behind the writing, rather than just the writing itself.

I had a professor a few years ago who said this to me: "There is no such thing as a final draft. What you turn in will always have the potential to be revised, because writing is a process." It took me a long time to realize exactly what he meant. What you turn in for a grade may be the final chance you get at receiving the grade for the course, but writing is a process of revision, rethinking, rewriting, reimagining, re-doing, and reawakening. All drafts, in the course of things, are rough. Some may be rougher than others. Walt Whitman released nine editions and revisions of his magnus opus Leaves of Grass, working at it for 33 years of his life. Similarly, we as teachers must understand that the drafts the students turn in should not be viewed as the end of that particular road, but as simply another stepping stone towards even greater writing, and greater self-discovery.

It's eerie how well this concept fits in with the surge of digital literacy education in classrooms across America. Although I had never had the experience of truly experiencing digital education, the core purpose of digital literature rings true with the opinions expressed thus far. According to Hicks:
“Digital writing tools allow teachers and students unprecedented access into the writing process. From blog posts that accumulate into a collection of work, to draft upon draft of revisions that are automatically stored in a wiki’s history or in an online word processor, students are increasingly able to easily archive and return their work over time” (108).
The key take-away is in that last sentence. Returning to their work. How we grade may be subjective, and how we teach may change, but what all teachers need to understand is that their class is not the sole provider of literature and discovery. Their class shouldn't be the end. Your teacher's desk is not a place where ideas come to die. It is a place to spark discussion and growth--and if all teachers would keep that in mind, I believe grading papers wouldn't be so bad after all.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Writing Instruction (and Destruction)

Writing is a multi-step process.

I don't think that first sentence was very controversial. In fact, I don't think it's controversial at all. You'd be hard pressed to find a writer who claims that writing doesn't involve any sort of planning, or drafting, or revision. You'd be harder pressed to find a less divisive opener. I'm really patting myself on the back here.

Likewise, learning to write is a multi-step process.

Now at this point, I must be pulling your leg. I've made two relatively universal, outright boring, non-controversial claims-- and not only that, but I've given them their own paragraph. Why? Well, listen:

Those concepts are relatively simple sounding. I think most people would agree wholeheartedly. When Jesus commanded humanity to love thy neighbors and enemies alike, I'm sure his followers were all for it. But then they got back to their homes and saw that insolent enemy neighbor not taking care of his weeds again, ensuring that the remainder of the day would have to be spent guarding my prize-winning lawn from the infestation next door. Thanks, Dave. Life is always more complicated than it seems.

And so, my point: if we all agree that learning to write is a multi-step process, why do we go about teaching it as if it isn't? Writing in many schools is a barrage of five-paragraph instruction and regurgitation, utilizing a form that, while effective, has been beaten to death and drained of its creativity. The writing these students produce is standardized because the instruction is standardized because the tests are standardized. What we demand from them is not a love of writing. It is the ability to be clear. Is that important? Absolutely. But unfortunately, clarity is only one step of the ladder.

The readings this week illustrate the same inherent frustration of many who realize that this system cannot and should not last. We expect our students to learn to write like this, never fully realizing the potential connection between writing in the English classroom and personal writing, only for them to throw it out when they reach college. Professors don't want to read that kind of writing. Nobody does. Most importantly, the students don't want to, either. This is why the inquiry based writing instruction is, albeit imperfect, a breath of fresh air to writing instruction. It emphasizes student involvement, de-emphasizes stringent rules, and fosters avid writers. In our reading, it is written: "students will be prepared to meet the demands of writing in a world with constantly evolving conventions and expectations, because what they know about writing is not static; they've learned how to learn about writing" (Ray, 247).

I particularly like the relationship between this and the integration of digital literacy, which is finally being recognized in classrooms all over the country. Our readings acknowledged that “creating a web-based text is very similar to creating a print-based text” (Hicks, 36). With an emphasis on drafting, planning, and revising--along with an increased consciousness of audience and purpose--digital writing (such as blog posts like this) can definitely be incorporated in the classroom to reinforce the idea that writing for class and writing for fun can and should overlap.

"No man but a blockhead ever wrote,
except for money." - Samuel Johnson
It is with this in mind that the mini-lesson becomes so crucial to the writing workshop. This form of instruction is quick, and, if done well, can grab and retain the students attention. In the long run, teaching students how to write through explicit instruction is definitely not as effective as allowing students to explore other works and model and adapt techniques through interesting and engaging reading. It is through a systematic adoption of inquiry based instruction and attention-grabbing lessons that our students can learn now only how to write, but why. It can help them understand that writing isn't just a grade-- it is a way to explore & discover, to convey, and to conquer.