Tuesday, July 13, 2010

I am a Hypocrite

It started as an inspired idea.

For their final writing assignment, I would have my tenth grade English students write an essay describing their writing process and how they had addressed their personal writing goals over the course of our semester together. What I expected were essays loaded with metaphors: “My process is like a trip on the tilt-a-whirl,” “I draft like an architect,” “I write like I’m trapped in a snow globe.” I imagined my own essay.

I am shoveling snow in the middle of a blizzard. The storm begins slowly, a few misshaped snowflakes land on the sidewalk and quickly melt away. Suddenly the skies open, and the ideas swirl and gather like a mid-February storm in Michigan. In its midst, I am trying to shovel, clearing away chunky, frostbitten language while new ideas are gathering on my sidewalks. I am attempting to carve out a shape and structure mid-thought, mid-process. It is a futile effort, I know this.

What I hoped to see in my students’ essay were revelations about how they made progress toward their goals over the course of our semester: “Ms. Ward, I had an ‘ah-ha’ moment and realized that I needed to further explain quotations in order to show analysis” or “I learned how to infuse my voice into even academic writing through my diction and stance toward my topic.”

This did not happen.

Instead, essays were loaded with nearly list-like descriptions of how I had taught the writing process throughout the semester: I brainstorm, outline, draft, and revise. Some students attempted hesitating honesty and declared their propensity toward procrastination. For the most part, the essays lacked voice, weighed down by formal diction and predictable sentence structure. In short, their writing lacked life.

This is when the disconnect between the way I teach the writing process and the way that I approach writing personally became abundantly clear. How come I was able to come up with a metaphor for my writing process, but it was such a struggle for my students? It was then that I realized I am a hypocrite. If I don’t practice what I preach, if I don’t brainstorm, outline, draft, and revise in that order each time I write, how could I expect my students to follow the very linear model of writing that I had taught throughout the semester? I can picture my students slapping high-five’s and pumping fists over this revelation. I have been passing on an unrealistic model for writing, or at least one that does not work for every writer. It forced me reconsider how I teach writing process.


Ralph Fletcher writes in his book What a Writer Needs, “…no element of writing can exist in isolation.” When writing teachers compartmentalize the writing process into discrete steps, we suffocate the craft and the art that writing involves. Writing is recursive. We brainstorm, draft, and revise simultaneously. We elicit feedback and start again. We revise and rewrite again and again and again. As I heard writer James McBride say, “Writing is rewriting.” Very few writers find that they are finished with a piece once they have brainstormed, outlined, drafted, and revised just once. As a result, writing teachers, myself included, need to explode the writing process in our classrooms, giving students the opportunity to explore and find their own best practices. “Research on writing, and the words of writers themselves, suggest a far stranger, far less logical writing process than that. Less neat. It turns out that many writers actually discover what they have to say in the process of writing it,” suggests Fletcher. Instead of teaching a lock-step approach to writing, teachers need to focus on sharing a variety of strategies for thinking about and engaging in the writing process.

So when I next enter the classroom, I want to teach my students to shovel their own snow.


Ryan said...

I really enjoyed this post and have been going through a similar process over the last two years. I'd like to suggest that you use conferences and reflective writing earlier in the year.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Ryan on the use of reflective writing earlier, but I also hope you will be sharing your snow-shoveling essay with them! One goal of mine this year is doing more modelling for my own students, especially when I ask them to write poetry or other creative writing pieces. Good luck!

Jennifer Ward said...

Ryan and Jackie,

Thanks for the great suggestions. I think you both have great ideas. I've been participating in the National Writing Project classes this summer and both ideas have come up! I'm learning more about conferencing skills. And, Jackie, I too would like to do more with modeling.

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