Last year, I had a conversation with one of my classes on why writing was so hard. Here are a few of their reasons:
- I don’t know where to start.
- I don’t know where to end.
- I don’t write in chronological order or in any order that makes logical sense. It’s all over the place.
- I don’t always write in complete sentences, but sometimes I do.
- I’m afraid I’ll write the wrong thing and have to do the whole thing over.
- The choices are overwhelming.
- Every time I write something crappy, my teacher always likes it. Every time I write something I think is brilliant, my teacher thinks its crap.
- Because it just is.
- I have a hard time getting what’s in my head out on paper.
- I’ve discovered that I really don’t know how to tell a story.
In an interview with the New York Times on the occasion of his retirement from fiction writing, novelist Philip Roth said, “I no longer have the stamina to endure the frustration. Writing is frustration— it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time.” And yet failure is the process by which all writers – novelists, essayists, social critics, screenwriters, journalists, technical writers—meander their grief-stricken way to the finished product. How do we support kids in failure?
Next to teaching (and all things for which there are no clear paths—loving someone, raising kids, grieving, etc), writing is the hardest thing I do and it may be the hardest thing we ask kids to do. We’re asking students to engage in an activity which requires memory, logic, visualization, vocabulary, plus kinesthetic and cognitive awareness. Plus failure.
Research on the neuroscience of writing shows just how enormous an undertaking writing is. Neurologically, writing is a skill on par with someone playing a musical instrument or participating in a sporting event. It’s complex, unique, and only develops through practice.
So while I admit that writing is so incredibly, mind-bogglingly hard, I would argue, the teaching of writing is even harder. A good high school English teacher attempts to create an environment wherein 150 students (with 150 sets of information and misinformation, memory, value, prejudice, vocabulary, and logic) grapple with the enormously complex task of 1) attaching mental images to 2) the concrete, appropriate words in 3) the best order to 4) move an audience for 5) a specific purpose in 6) a specific, cohesive form using 7) appropriate-to-the-product usage and grammar.
So how are we to manage this Herculean task?
You must be a writer yourself. I feel everything that needs to be said about the importance of English teachers to be active readers and writers has already been said by great teachers, like Nanci Atwell (In The Middle) and Penny Kittle (Write Beside Them). Writing with your students makes you humble in the face of the staggering, monumental task you are asking them to accomplish. Writing is dynamic, not a set of static concepts students learn once and master. To understand the struggles of writing, you don’t have to be a published author, you just have to write on a regular basis. You can’t teach writing from a position of theory. You must have a process and projects of your own. If not, you are in an untenable position to support students with the overwhelming number of decisions with which they will be faced.
Move beyond the free write, graphic organizers, and constructed response. If students are to become better writers, they must move beyond teacher-created forms, like the 3.5 paragraph essay and the 6 point essay. Freewriting and graphic organizers have given struggling writers a great tool by which to get the ideas in their head down onto a piece of paper in the form of words and sentences. But those tools are still training wheels, and writers need to learn how to ride, wide open into the dark unknown. Struggling, then failing, then learning how to struggle and fail smarter is part of the process of becoming a better thinker and writer. If we provide students with the pre-fab forms by which to fashion their thought, they will never have the opportunity to learn from the process of navigating that road alone. Students must learn to manage the project of their own writing from start to finish to become better writers.
Allow students to choose their own writing projects. Teacher-created writing assignments come from the brain of the teacher, not the student writer. Writing prompts have a long and gloried history in the English classroom. From “What did you do over your summer vacation?” to the perennial “What would you do if you won a million dollars?” writing prompts have provided reluctant writers a spring board from which to jump onto the often-intimidating blank page. Being able to respond in writing to an on-demand prompt is also one of the skills we use to measures how students demonstrate their own learning of a concept. However, real world writing asks students to discover their own reasons to communicate, their own exigence. We need to teach students to recognize this need and to write toward a finished product. Students must learn how to select their own topics, manage the time to research, draft, and edit a long project, and ultimately, deal with the inherent failure, even while becoming a better and braver writer in the end.