I’ve been considering this question for some time, even more after hearing Pernille Ripp’s “Creating Passionate Writers” talk at nErDcampMI. It’s such a complex question with many facets, and one that took a lot of inner reflection and consideration to answer. Mainly because, until I really sat down and started allowing myself to write freely, I’d never considered my own writing identity. I never thought about my process, environment, or what worked well for me to express my thinking in words. I’d always produced what was expected and met the requirements on a rubric. I was a mass producer of formulaic written content, basically a writing robot.
My fellow language arts teachers out there know the mind-numbing experience that is grading essays. Those of us who have taught our students to write the quintessential 5-paragraph essay, complete with introduction, conclusion, thesis statement, and supporting evidence, know how boring it can be to read the exact same essay 92 times in a row. We created our little writing robots, regurgitating the information we gave in class on the production line that is their essay. But really, what did they learn about writing? About themselves as writers? About finding the empowerment or joy in written expression?
Teaching writing is hard. It’s challenging for a lot of reasons to be sure, and it seems like every few years there’s a new curriculum out there guaranteed to be The Solution to the difficulty that is writing instruction. But I think that’s part of the problem. Maybe none of these Miraculous Solutions works for every student because writing is not a one-size-fits-all process. Maybe our 5 category writing process clip chart isn’t realistic. Maybe teaching writing is hard because we’re trying to standardize something that shouldn’t, no CAN’T, be standardized.
Pernille poses the idea that each of us has a very unique, individualized writing process. We all have things that work for us and things that don’t, and that as teachers, we need to encourage our students to explore and experiment with their own. The more I considered this, the more it made sense to me. As I write this now, I’m sitting comfortably on my couch with quiet music playing in the background. I’m typing rather than writing with paper and pencil, and I’m letting the words flow while stopping to edit thoughts as I go along. That’s my process. That’s what works best for me. Change any aspect of that environment or make me fill out a graphic organizer to “plan”, and my ideas become less fluid. Less creative. They begin to take on that metallic, robotic form.
This is what works for me, and I’m able to produce better writing this way. I’m saddened by the fact that I didn’t learn this about myself until I was 25. I can only imagine how much more enjoyable writing would’ve been for me had I discovered this sooner. Like many students, my own included, I viewed writing as something we do for school, something that was unpreferred. It was work. And not rewarding or fun work, but a grueling and tedious job that I had to force myself to do. It took a quarter of a century and a nudge from a professor to start my own blog (as uncomfortable as that was) for me to start playing at writing without an assignment to complete.
I want my students to start experimenting now. I want them to figure out their own process, their own ideal environment that will help them produce ideas that can be shared in writing. In order to do that, I have to provide the opportunity for them to try new methods. Whether that be where they’re sitting, the medium they’re using, or even what they’re writing about. When I first starting teaching, the idea of giving my students that much choice didn’t compute. How in the world would I cover what I needed to if I let them pick what they were writing about? I’d think to myself, well that sounds like such a nice idea, but my kids need to learn how to write an essay. It will help them in the long run. It’s true, learning to write in an academic arena is an important skill to teach. They will have to write academically in their careers as students, and I do need to lay the foundation for those skills. But why do I have to provide so many constraints to do that? Why can’t they choose the topic? Why can’t they direct their own writing process?
With so many students who have an aversion to writing, it seems to me that creating our writing production line that spits out 92 “perfect” essays isn’t working the way we wanted it to. Instead, it’s turning our kids off to one of the most amazing forms of expression. The thing is, we can still teach our students the foundational writing skills within topics of their own choosing. I can still teach students how to support a thesis with evidence, regardless of what they are writing about. I can also still teach it with students listening to music, laying on the floor, and typing on the computer. And, surprisingly, having students follow their own process doesn’t make it harder to manage. It makes it easier. Because they actually want to do it.
Instead of forcing all of our students into the Next Model for writing instruction, let’s take a step back and allow them to discover their own process. Guide them in their exploration of what works for them. Give them the freedom to try, fail, and try again. Let’s empower them to make choices and to have a voice, not just in the classroom, but in their writing. And above all, let’s help them find the joy that comes with written expression and sharing ideas. We’ve got enough robots nowadays, anyway.