In an article, “Why Kids Can’t Write” published in the New York Times, a study of almost 500 teachers of 3rd- 8th grade by Gary Troia of Michigan State University and Steve Graham of Arizona State University, uncovered the lack of preparation of teachers to teach writing and as a result, only 55 percent of teachers surveyed said they enjoyed teaching it. According to Dr. Troia,
“Most teachers are great readers. They’ve been successful in college, maybe even graduate school. But when you ask most teachers about their comfort with writing and their writing experiences, they don’t do very much or feel comfortable with it.”
According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the majority of 12th and 8th graders lack proficiency in writing. When teachers don’t feel comfortable modeling and creating the conditions for students to develop their skills, confidence, and voice, writing schools lack authenticity and real purpose. And, as a result, too many students fail to develop as proficient writers.
I would argue that beyond the lack of direct preparation, many teachers rarely write themselves– likely because they weren’t inspired or developed as writers in school. Because of this, too often, many focus on the superficial aspects of writing such as grammar and penmanship, rather than substance like clarifying thinking, or communicating ideas, and entertaining others.
Are we Guilty of “Do as I Say, Not as I Do”?
As I have been writing more and more and I see my own children developing as writers and what inspires them (and what doesn’t), I have been thinking a lot about how we teach writing in school. I was reminded of some very experienced and highly regarded teachers who had very specific guidelines for how they wanted students to write a summary. They had repeatedly told students what was expected in the summaries and boasted about their rigorous grading and high standards. What was troubling us all was that their high standards were rarely met by their students and the process was miserable for everyone.
To better understand what they were expecting of students and why they might be struggling, I asked each teacher to write a summary themselves as a model. A “simple” task they regularly assigned their students quickly stumped them. As they read the passage and began to write their summary, they began to second-guessed their formula. I started to hear them ask each other, “Are you putting the main idea first or last?” and “Which details are you using?” They struggled with how to organize their ideas and craft a summary.
This was a breakthrough.
What the teachers had assumed was straightforward and as simple as following the formula, quickly changed as they were the ones making sense of the information and writing to convey their own understanding of the text. At the end of the exercise, each teacher’s summary was slightly different from the other and they varied on their take on the main idea. None of them met the exact expectations set forth in their own rubric.
What they realized is that the writing process is not as formulaic as they had been teaching it to be and there are a lot of decisions and skills that students needed to leverage as they were writing the summaries.
3 Ways to Make the Writing Process More Authentic
There are a lot of things that we do in school to kill the joy of writing and stifle creativity. Here are three ways to make the writing process more authentic and learner-centered rather than painful and formulaic.
1. Focus on Content and Ideas, Not Grammar
It’s amazing how we can get so hung up on creating a perfect piece of writing and how often we mark kids down on their grades because of spelling errors or capitalization. In spite of our goals to make their writing clear and aligned with a rubric or standards, this practice rarely encourages young creative learners and emerging writers to share their ideas. Instead, it teaches them to hold them in. When I am focusing on writing down my ideas, I make mistakes in spelling, grammar and sentence structure- even when I reread it a million times. But every time I write, I get clearer on my thoughts and ideas and I get better at the mechanics of writing too.
I love this quote–
“You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you, and we edit to let the fire show through the smoke.” – Arthur Plotnik
When books or articles get published they go through rigorous editing processes and authors have lots of support in the process to make it better not to mark them down. If we focus on mechanics before we let the ideas emerge, we will extinguish the flame before it gets a chance to burn.
2. Expand Your View of Writing
I was talking to my father in law, who has published multiple books and he shared how thankful he is for computers and new tools because of how much easier they make it to draft, revise, and publish. As we shared stories of our own writing process, I thought about how many students still are forced to write the first draft by hand, edit it and then write the final draft because this is the process that many of us educators were subjected to going through school, not because it is the most effective way to write and share something today
When I write, I often type some ideas and quick notes on my phone. If I am driving and something pops into my head, I open a new note and narrate ideas using the speech to text. Sometimes I grab any random piece of paper next to me and I scribble some ideas, drawn pictures and make endless lists. Sometimes I write titles with nothing else. Sometimes they just sit there waiting to be developed, sometimes the ideas turn into blog posts and some of those will eventually be a book.
So when Zack, my 2nd-grade son, had a speech to give in class and he was fighting me on writing it, I reflected on my own experience and writing process to try a different approach. Instead of writing it out first, he narrated his ideas with text to speech. As he read each sentence, he would reread, revise, edit and improve it as he went once he had his ideas recorded. I watched him in awe knowing that he never would have revised it like this if it was on paper because it takes a lot more work to write and rewrite something on paper.
When he was focused on sharing his ideas, he was excited and the result was a nicely organized (and typed paper) that he felt really good about. It also took 1/4th of the time, energy, and prodding to get him to write. Just to be clear, this is not to say that he doesn’t need to work on printing and mechanics but it shouldn’t impede the love of writing and sharing his awesome ideas.
3. Try it Yourself
When teachers don’t write themselves and just assign it, they can misunderstand the writing process. Like most deep learning experiences, writing is not linear and neat (at least to begin with). The best ideas don’t always perfectly fit into a graphic organizer or a 5 paragraph essay. Good writing doesn’t always come in the first draft- or the second or third- and sometimes the best ideas have mistakes in grammar or look messy.
You probably rarely write 5 paragraph essays, but you might assign them. Are you helping students write in a variety of genres that are most common today? Do you do the type of writing you assign? How do you model for your students how you write, empathize with their challenges, and work through them as a fellow writer and teacher, not just an assigner?
I learned so much about the writing assignments I was expecting of students when I would do the assignment first and model what I expected. It was also a great way to connect with my students by opening myself up and sharing my own ideas, thoughts, and experiences that I was asking them to write about. If I wanted them to share, I had to be willing to do the same. When educators take risks and embrace the process they are better able to understand the experiences and opportunities that exist for learners. I love this reflection that Cariann Cook’s shared,
It [blogging] also helped me relate to my students who “can’t think of anything to write about.” It’s been good for me to put my thoughts on paper (on my computer) to really internalize the thoughts going around in my head. I like the intentionality of it and after only 3 weeks of blogging, I’ve started thinking “Ooh I could blog about this!
When teachers become learners and take on new learning experiences, they often become more aware of what is possible and create better experiences for their students. If we want students to develop as proficient writers we need to understand the writing process and create the conditions for them to develop the confidence, purpose, and skills to be authentic writers.