Like real writers

I teach high school English to hang around writing.  Like most people, I learn best when I teach, and I hope to learn writing by teaching it.  It has always worked for me with the other strands in our English curriculum.  Teaching grammar, for instance, has helped me to learn a lot of grammar I was never clear about, and the grammar has helped my writing.  Teaching literature has helped me consider new ways for close reading, and that has lead to some new writing.

But until recently, teaching writing has taught me little about writing.  I have taught a lot of scaffolding – a lot of structure that I have long ago stopped using in my own writing.  I have gotten student papers that feel like fatigue and mental strain and hopelessness and pretension all mashed together.  I have rarely mentioned to students that I like to write, since my admission only seems to put distance between them and me.

My five weeks this past summer with the Northern Virginia Writing Project have made me hope that my writing and my writing instruction can find each other.  I understand now that students need a writer in the classroom, one who is not afraid to model frustration and patience and poor-quality first drafts.  The books I’ve read and the teaching lessons I’ve experienced this summer validate me as both a teacher and a writer, and I have already trusted my instincts as a writer a lot more during our first two weeks of school.  My ninth-grade students are beginning to respond.

I’m teaching as a writer now, so I’m teaching from some deep water inside me.  But I’m teaching mostly to students who feel no connection with writing. I am rediscovering that teachers aren’t the only ones in class separated from their own writing.

Writers know how to write, and teachers know how to teach.  Students need writing teachers who are both writers and teachers.  If the teacher is a writer, it is more likely that students will see themselves as writers, too.  Students’ writing won’t improve much unless they know that they already have a voice for writing and unless they have a teacher who will help them uncover and refine that voice.

Writers also support each other and gain inspiration from real audiences, if blogging has taught me anything.  I’d like to make my classroom more like a writers’ workshop and a writers’ support group, and I’d like my students to write for authentic audiences.

These three big ideas – kids need to write like writers, interact like writers, and be rewarded like writers – stand behind fourteen changes I am making to my writing instruction.

1.  Have students write, to start with. I’ve never liked prewriting graphic organizers.  I figured it was because I didn’t learn to write that way.  But now I know the real reason: I’m a writer, and writers don’t prewrite much.

Sometimes writers work from an outline (I’m working from one here), but they usually start off writing.  When I’ve assigned outlines to my ninth-grade students in the past, some students have usually written their papers first, and then they have made their outline.  It annoyed me.  But they were only acting as writers do.  I was just acting like a poor writing teacher.

How do you know what you think until you write it? Students who write first often discover what they have to say as they go along.  Graphic organizers rob students of that discovery, since they force students to think as if they were writing.  To “envision” writing is like envisioning vision.  Instead, just write.

As if psyching students out of writing well were not damaging enough, graphic organizers also keep students from discovering where their writing could take them.  No matter how many times I’ve told students that they need not follow their prewriting organizer or their outline, they have tended to do so.  Such writing is usually slavish and spiritless.

I won’t deny students graphic organizers.  (See section 2 below.)  I won’t introduce but a few organizers, though.  For those that like them, I’ll insist that they sometimes try writing without them for an exercise.  This week I suggested that students use some organizers as “midwriting” organizers to help them see where their earlier writing took them.

I’ll encourage students to make a mess with their writing.  Do freewrites.  Mix in fragments and lists as the inspiration comes.  I’ll have students experiment with graffiti writing (not on buildings!) and show them how some of it may become poetry.  I’ll train students to pick through their messes for the raw energy needed for expanded writing.

In fact, I’m looking at everything we teach our kids about writing, and I’m saying to myself: “I’m a pretty experienced writer.  Do I do this?  Does any writer I know do this?”  I’ll trust my gut more, now that I’m in class as a writer and a teacher.

2.  Be both linear and flexible about the writing process. Many poor writers have poor writing processes, but most poor writers don’t have an ownership stake in any writing process, not even in the one that they use.  Early on, they discovered that their teacher’s process didn’t fit, so they decided that writing wasn’t for them.

Let’s get honest about the writing process.  It’s not rigid.  It’s not even linear.  Good writing instructors know that writing is recursive, but it’s worse than even that, I think.  “Recursive” suggests a nice spiral – maybe a falcon’s widening gyre – to replace the linear writing process usually taught in American primary and secondary schools.  After the end, we go back to the beginning, better informed.

But writing isn’t even that tidy.  In fact, what serious writer follows anyone else’s writing process?  Any such center cannot hold.  A different writing sometimes requires a different process.  A good writer experiments, learns from other writers, and lets her writing teach her.

I started some great discussions about the writing process last week with this: “Do you like to think before you write, or do you like to write and think at the same time?”  [Pause.]  “There is no wrong answer.”

I realize now that my question validated the kids as writers.  Writers develop preferences.  They may try a lot of things, but not everything fits.

I tell the kids that they are experienced writers, that they have been writing papers for seven years now.  I commiserate with them on their having been bounced from one teacher’s emphasis to another’s for years.  I present the upside: they have been exposed to a lot of techniques, some of which probably work for them.

I admit that I’ll insist on their trying different techniques, but that they’ll be calling the writing-process shots when they work on their major pieces. I’ll be looking for good writing in their major pieces, not adherence to a structure or a technique.  When we learn a writing technique, we’ll spend time experimenting with it and reflecting on how, if at all, it may fit a student’s emerging writing philosophy and style.

So we’ll learn technique and process, but we’ll also learn good writing.  That’s where the literature comes in.

3.  Read like writers. We’ll take favorite excerpts from novels and short stories we read and ask ourselves, “How did he do that?”  We’ll analyze and then imitate.  What sticks becomes part of a student’s emerging style.  (My favorite book along these lines is The Art of Reading: A Handbook on Writing by Robert Ray and Ann Ray.)

I’ll teach the kids to spot a favorite passage, to look under the passage’s hood, and to lift some of the parts from it for their own hot writing.

4.  Allow content to dictate structure. Most states’ standards of learning (or the local school systems responsible for implementing them) require teachers to have students produce a certain number of papers per year.  The standards specify the kinds of writing required: expository essays, research papers, personal essays, etc.  So teachers dutifully teach by the genre.  For instance, we explain what an expository essay is, we teach its components, and we tell the students to write one.

This is not a good idea, usually.  If structure drives a paper’s content, students learn not to trust their own voices. Students conform their voice to what they perceive to be the tone of a model essay, and they write only to connect the dots on some outline.

Besides, when we teach structure before content, we’re not teaching structure at all.  Real writers learn structure by finding out what fits the writing as it develops.  Part of writing is learning how to structure content appropriately. (See my recent post “The Tyranny of the Secondary School” for a more comprehensive indictment against premature writing structure instruction.)

Of course, structure can challenge an excellent writer to write better.  In his book Collected Poems, Robert Bly points out how the limits of poetry meter can force a poem against those limits, creating great energy in a poem.  I will challenge students with form this year, particularly poetic forms.  But such challenges should be the exception for my ninth graders.  Most writing, at least on the first draft and the first revision, usually should be without much consideration of form.

This year, then, we’ll make lots of first-draft messes.  We’ll learn some revision tools, and then we’ll learn some structure.  We’ll meet in writer support groups and discuss how our writing may develop into a commonly recognized structure, or, as I suggest in my next point, to discuss how it may come to resemble some combination of established structures.

5.  Speak the words and listen to them, too. Though I’ll deemphasize structure, I’ll emphasize the sound of words, which poetry forms sometimes force us to consider.  Most of the words pelting down on us each day bring little music. But good poetry (and prose) often amounts to an ode to the alphabet, a reconnection of sound and meaning.  We can be the ones who listen to and use the sounds in the words to create meaning.

Oral expression can be part of the writing process.  Reading our work out loud to ourselves and to others will be tools in the writers’ toolbox.  People often wish to revise their work as they perform it.  Sometimes, we hear our work most strongly in the community context, so why not make our performance part of the revision process?  It was this kind of revision – an oral poetry tradition – that probably produced The Iliad and The Odyssey.  (I think one reason modern works haven’t matched the greatness of these classics is that we use ink, and ink dries too fast.)

Also, we’ll broaden our understanding of publishing to include performance, and performance can involve as little as a public or private reading.

6.  Blend and loosen the modes. Blending modes has to do with my fourth point (above): content should dictate structure.  Instinctively, many teachers may see the blending of writing modes as a means of confusing students, of undermining the students’ understandings of what the modes require.  I think it’s worth risking the confusion.  Students need to experiment with writing, with purpose, and with audience to see the benefit of a particular mode of written rhetoric.  There really is enough room in the essay genre, for instance, for all kinds of purposes and styles of writing.  Let kids break the rules.  As students’ writing develops, I’ll let it tell them what structure may be best.

Some of this genre-loosening could return us to a genre’s roots.  The classic eighteenth-century novels, for instance, are far faster and looser with the genre’s “rules” than their modern counterparts.  The essay – that staple of high-school writing – started off with no rules against first-person references and no rules against text-to-self connections.  Expository writing also never proscribed humor until schools got involved with it, I bet you.  Genres can be co-opted, partially or completely, by pedagese.

7.  Make class like a writer’s workshop. Writers don’t get much support if the teacher provides no buffer between the writers and the state’s standards of learning.  A teacher’s job is to teach skills and not just the specific terms and products that the school systems emphasize. Besides, if I emphasize the skills, the state standards will be a lot easier to get across.  If my kids are writing, it also will be easier to negotiate with them in order to have them bend some of their writing to meet the school system’s product requirements.

I’m not teaching writing in units this year because the unit model seems to hinder more than it helps.  Learning writing in units would be like learning life in units, I think.  Life and writing both go too deep and explore too much to turn over to units.  Besides, writing is recursive (as is life), and students feel bad if they have to go back to previous units.  The unit approach, then, is too simplistic, too artificial, and too linear.  I’ve taught writing in units for years.  I just didn’t know anything better until I asked myself why my classes couldn’t be more like writers’ workshops.  (I develop the idea that students don’t learning writing in units more fully in my post “My unit assessment.”)

Hopefully, a writers’ workshop atmosphere will help students see themselves as writers.  Students will have daily writing practice, and they will jot down brief, individualized goals for each writing session.  During the session, I’ll be working on my own writing (see point 12 below), meeting with students on their writing, and helping students “push their pieces” by reading over their shoulders and slipping them small slips of paper on which to try out a suggestion.

8.  Teach self-assessment. For years, I’ve lost many weekends and around half of the waking hours of my winter breaks grading papers.  I’ve learned some ways to speed grading up and to get students to pay attention to the comments I jot all over their papers.  I’ve learned a lot of tricks to standardize my comments, and I’ve presented lots of carrots and sticks to get students to read and apply my comments to subsequent drafts.  Most students do the minor changes I request.  However, most students don’t do the deep revision my comments suggest.

If I do most of the assessing, students won’t assess their own writing.  Instead, they’ll leave all of the assessment for me.  (They’ll also be writing for me, and, as I acknowledged before, I’m usually a boring audience to write for.)

Does every paper have to be assessed?  No.  Kelly Gallagher, author of Teaching Adolescent Writers, applies a four-to-one ratio between his students’ writing and the amount of it that he reads for any form of assessment.  My students need to write a lot more than I can possibly assess.

An external assessor should always be trying to work himself out of a job.  I want my students to learn to assess their own writing more and more.  Lifelong learners are necessarily lifelong, skilled self-assessors, too.

Portfolios will help students develop a sense of their own development as writers.  I’ll give them exercises to reflect on what their portfolios teaches them about their emerging writing.  The portfolios will also give me the opportunity to get to know each student better as a writer instead of as another ream from a paper mill.

I want students to write about their writing.  What do they like about it, and how could it improve?  Whom do they wish they could write like?  What is it about that author that appeals to them?

I want students to reflect on their writing process.  As they do so, they begin to connect with some of our grand writing theory.  They see what they prefer; they see what works for them.  They begin to see themselves as individual writers with their own A-game and B-game writing processes.

After some written reflection, students will illustrate and map out their writing process.  We’ll put them on the walls. Students may find ways there to improve their process to help them write like fellow students whose writing they admire.

I won’t grade individual papers so specifically.  I’ll give students a sense of where the paper is against where it could be, and I’ll let the student know what he or she might do to improve it.  But I’ll communicate this less with letters than with face-to-face conversations in writers’ conferences.

I will train the students to run writing conferences between them and me.  The student will bring a bulleted agenda, and we’ll follow it. I will resist the urge to correct or to suggest more than the student raises in his agenda.  To make this work, I have to be a fellow writer, too.  Hopefully, I’m the best writer in the classroom (as things currently stand), and my feedback is worth something.  But having students write for my grade has not tended to help them become better writers.

9.  Talk like writers. We’ll discuss writing with an underlying premise: we’re writers.   Part of reflecting on our writing is talking about our craft and our choices.

Writers have their own lexicon, too.  As we try different things out, we’ll learn the names for them, and those names will enrich our discussions.  We’ll have a writers’ toolbox on the wall to which we’ll add a small poster of each tool as we learn the tool.

Our state’s standards of learning include a lot of literary terms I have to teach.  I hope to be able to put most of the terms we have to learn, whether it is “lyric” or “allusion” or “connotation,” in our writers’ toolbox.  I want them to know those terms as writers and not just as readers.

10.  Write in class. Writing is valuable enough to do in class.  Sure, ninth-grade English covers four other strands besides writing: literature, oral communication, grammar, and vocabulary.  But all of these can enhance writing.  Even oral communication can get into the act with poetry performances and read-arounds.  (See point 5 above.)  But I plan to make writing the main thing this year.  See if you can identify these other four strands in this year’s “is about” statement I’m using this year: “English 9 Academic is about discovering, channeling, performing, polishing, and publishing our writing.”  (“Channeling” refers to learning about genres our writing may gravitate towards.)

If writing is important, we need to do it in class.  Some strong communities of writers get together just to write near each other.  There’s something about the experience of several people writing nearby that enhances our writing sometimes.  Many adult writers cherish such opportunities!  Occasional choices of engaging, common prompts, quiet music, and frequent writing opportunities to push pieces to the next level also give a classroom a community writing atmosphere.

11.  Write to publish. Before this past summer, my underlying motivation to write well has been, “Fear my red pen!”  My students have written at pen point instead of for genuine audiences.  A teacher rarely constitutes a genuine audience since students often can assume that the teacher knows more about the paper’s subject than they do.

But I am being optimistic when I say that a student audience is the teacher.  Really, the audience in a typical student paper is a construct, a kind of dramatic convention the student and the teacher pull off to make the paper sort of work.  The students and teacher pretend that someone will read the paper to be informed or entertained.  It’s a fake audience, and the cost is often a strained, pretentious, and fake voice.  The greater cost is a learned loathing of writing.

It’s better to have a real audience.  I have discovered already that students put forth more effort when they know other students will read their work than when they know that only I will read it.  They are also far more likely to turn the paper in, for one thing.

I would like to have every piece of writing geared for an audience other than me, whether it is the writer herself, other students, or the general public.  We will publish on blogs, on social networks, in class anthologies, on sidewalks with chalk, in class read-arounds, and maybe in a book through Lulu.com, a print-on-demand site.  We’ll send lots of material to the school newspaper and to the school literary magazine.  We will have days when we write cover letters and query letters to periodicals.  We’ll post our rejection letters in the room as badges of honor.  We’ll have writing contests with prizes and outside, distinguished judges.

12.  Model writing. Pouring less red ink onto student papers should give me more time to write outside of class.  (Of course, I write to relax, and I’ll usually find a way to write even if it means going without sleep.)

If I write when the students are writing, it makes the atmosphere more like a writing support group.  If I demonstrate my writing struggles and genuinely seek the class’s help (as I did yesterday, with great success!), then students will no longer see some great gulf fixed between good writers and them.  We all struggle with writing. The earlier in a student’s writing career we demonstrate it to her, the better.

My students will be in writer support groups (see point 14 below), so I plan to talk about my own writer support groups.  (I’m in one currently, and I’m helping to start a second one.)  “Two of them liked my poem, but one of them had some reservations about the tone.  Let me see what you think.”

I’ll also submit some of my writing to publishers.  This will be difficult for me because I’ve been quite happy with self-publishing.  But why not.  I need to get some rejection letters up on the wall with the students’ rejection letters, and it would be gratifying to have someone publish something of mine.

13.  Revise a lot. I’ll try to break the students’ fixation with putting almost all of their work into first drafts.  I’ve read two books this year (Kelly Gallagher’s Teaching Adolescent Writers and Barry Lane’s After the End) that have given me ideas on how to make revision writing more interesting.   I’ll also model this with my own writing.

We’ll also revise from the beginning.  I want them in the habit of seeing revision as a natural part of writing. (I’m ignoring Kelly Gallagher’s advice here.  Gallagher believes that you have to get students writing before they’ll be interested in revising.  But Gallagher’s revision ideas are so much fun that my students like revising!)

I will introduce most of my writers’ toolbox tools through revision writing.

14.  Meet in writer support groups. Many students have had bad experiences in peer editing groups.  Charged with finding mistakes, other students have hurt their feelings.  Most ninth-grade students are not qualified to edit other ninth graders’ papers, anyway; many students suggest changes that would only hurt the other students’ papers.

Writer support groups are different.  The members start with only a few, positive chores with respect to the others’ papers.  If the groups advance adequately, teachers can train members to take on more critical functions.  Editing, which is usually the last stage of writing, is not one of these functions.

Writers take turns reading their pieces.  Reading to others is a powerful experience, often both reinforcing and revisory.  Members give specific, positive feedback, such as: (a) What was your favorite part, and why? (b) What possibilities do you see for this writing?  (Structure (see point 4 above), purpose, and audience) (c) What questions do you have?

This last question – a solicitation of questions – is often helpful for deeper revisions.  Even if the group members don’t criticize the work, their questions show a writer how her work is perceived by others, or at least by someone other than herself.

Groups stay together for at least a marking period to allow the development of trust and to permit students to gradually understand the source of a member’s position better.  For more information on writers’ support groups, see my post “Blogging and Writers’ Support Groups.”)

Teachers should model writer support groups by reporting frequently on what happened in theirs.  (See my point 12 above.)  A fishbowl activity with teachers playing roles (the domineering member, the lazy member, the discouraging member, etc.) may also be a good way to start the groups off.

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Reconnecting my teaching to my writing feels like reconnecting a hose to a hydrant.  But I’m also on fire to reconnect kids to their own writing. I don’t know which motivates me more: my newfound cohesion or my students’ lack of it.

I want my class to be the kind of writer’s workshop I wish I had the time and money to take.  The fact that it’s on a ninth-grade level shouldn’t keep me from fully participating in it as a writer.