…teaching writing. You can take my word on this–I’ve been teaching writing, in some form or another, for the past five years.
Back when I first had my own real classroom, I focused primarily on writing, rather than on literature. My students typically completed two or three major writing assignments per month.
Over the years, the major writing assignments have fallen away little by little. I’d love to attribute this to some effective new philosophy in education–but the truth is that I was just looking for a way to feel less miserable at work. As it turns out, the teaching of reading, or grammar, or a comprehensive analysis of the friggin’ Collected Works of Charles Dickens is easier than teaching writing. At my lowest point, I was assigning one essay every two months…and if I were entirely without a conscience, it would have been less.
Essentially, the process of teaching writing is as follows:
- Students are given a topic.
- Teacher may help the students brainstorm ideas for said topic.
- Students are given time to write.
- Teacher collects papers, marks them, and puts a grade on the top. And yes, this step is every bit as unpleasant and tedious as it sounds.
- Students see their grades, and may or may not read the teacher’s comments. This way, Teacher’s unpleasant, tedious work is wasted, and Students effectively ensure that their writing does not improve.
End result: everyone’s miserable (me most of all), and the majority of the work remains mediocre at best. Is it any wonder that I’d rather stick to light-hearted literature circles?
In order for students to really improve their writing, it would be most helpful for a teacher to actually sit and speak to each child, one-on-one, about a given essay. Unfortunately, given the tight deadlines and large class sizes imposed on most public school teachers these days, such individualized attention is all but impossible to provide. What then, is a well-intentioned writing instructor to do?
As I planned my upcoming writing assignment (literature-based persuasive essays to be started later this week), I spent hours trying to circumvent the usual frustrations. So, here’s what we’re looking at for the next few days.
- Students will be given a topic.
- Students and Teacher will brainstorm ideas for said topic.
- Students will go to the computer lab to begin their rough drafts in class. This way, Teacher will have the opportunity to address major concerns/questions that might come up. (Writing is an ongoing process, yes, but in my experience with student essays, mistakes made within the first five minutes of work are the hardest to go back and undo.)
- Students will complete a rough draft of this paper within two days. This draft will not be graded, but students will receive a points just for having a paper complete. This way, they’ll have something to fix.
- Students will spend two days in class, evaluating their own papers, and that of their peers, for content, organization, and grammar/spelling mistakes. These different pieces will be reviewed in chunks, so as to make the whole process less intimidating. (Remember, baby steps.)
- Students will produce final drafts of their work, which Teacher will collect, mark, and grade.
- Students will see their grades, and may or may not read the teacher’s comments. (Okay, so the procedure hasn’t been perfected yet. But we’re getting closer.)
The teaching of writing, like writing itself, is a process that must continuously evolve. Writers, and teachers of writers, must not be afraid to make major changes, to throw out what doesn’t work, to reinvent even those things which at first seemed untouchable.
I’ll let you all know how it goes.
Writer and educator Sara Goas is a graduate of Lycoming College, and she specializes in creating content for the web. Her site saragoas.com has more examples of her work.