Recently, I read Penny Kittle’s article “What We Learn When We Free Writers,” and I learned as much about myself as a writer as I did about my students. I needed to rethink some things.
See, I am trying to write a book. Most days I’m lying when I say so. I haven’t written well enough or consistently enough or passionately enough to say so.
But I am trying to.
I started reading Writing Down the Bones–Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg, and I’m marking lines that resonate. So far, this is my favorite:
Write when you write (26).
I wrote it out and stuck it to my computer monitor, and during my lunch break I open up my document in Drive and throw my thinking on the page. This is hard–I am so easily distracted. And the perfectionist in me nags until I go back and make revisions. I’m trying to quiet that voice.
The #100words100days challenge is helping. This started as a simple idea during #engchat a few weeks ago. I’m not consistent in posting my word count or links to what I’ve written, but I am writing. That’s what matters.
Back to the article: Penny refers to the advice of Don Murray regarding authentic writing instruction. It includes just three things:
- Teach process, not product.
- Write yourself.
- Listen to your students.
I do all of these things. But sometimes, I do not do them well.
A few students and I had a big disconnect last week. They pushed back at what I was trying to get them to do. They didn’t understand. A lot.
I had failed at a few things:
A. I failed at making sure students knew that I do every writing assignment I ask them to do.
B. I failed at sharing (in a way that they understood) the enduring understandings and essential questions that directed my planning.
C. I failed at helping students see how process writing will help them with the timed writings that they will have to do on the AP exam, and it will help them with the writing they will have to do in college and beyond. (I still don’t get how they missed that.)
I assumed way too much. I guess I forgot these students are 16, and English class would be low on their list of priorities, if they kept a list.
So this morning, we slowed down. We thought about our writing and our writing habits. We wrote self-reflections, we evaluated our writing processes, and we talked.
First, I projected the stages of the continuum that Penny shared. Like her, I can see my students’ writing practices somewhere between “I won’t write” and “I freely write.”
Interestingly, when students placed their own writing practices on the continuum, with the exception of just two outliers, they all said they sat in “Stage three: I will write, but I’m not deeply engaged with my own thinking. I want you to tell me what to write, so I can do it the way you say so and move on.”
This makes me sad, but I think I get it.
I am trying to break the writing habits students have practiced for years. Years of teachers giving prompts and writing assignments that students did not choose. Years of students writing only what they had to for a grade. No play in notebooks. No writing just for the pleasure of writing. No writing without penalty for poor grammar or mechanics.
Now we are in the fourth quarter, and I have roughly two months to turn the tide. Two months to help students get what I so desperately want them to get: Writing well is what changes the world.
It is, you know. Just think about it.