The Magic of Two Handwritten Pages

By Daniel Summers

Listen, I get it. The basics of writing are important. How can we teach a student to write the next great American novel, or a persuasive essay about our current political environment, if that student hasn’t even mastered verb tenses yet? I teach high school. My Freshmen are still struggling with identifying verbs and adjectives in a sentence. It is a real struggle. So believe me–I’m right there with you. The basics matter. The basics are essential to writing. Grammar and syntax are the key with which we open the doors of communication.

With that said, I have a confession. I don’t like teaching, critiquing, or even entertaining “the basics” of writing. I do it as if each dangling modifier were a pot filled with burnt gravy.

I noticed something two years ago. When I asked students to write for me they groaned. Stop me if anything sounds unfamiliar… They groaned, complained, asked for length requirements, asked if I was grading it, asked how I was grading it, and even asked if I hated them. But, when I asked them to write for themselves they filled pages of their writer journals. In ten minutes they would load front and back, page after page, of their journal with glorious words and ideas. Sure, reading these jewels was tedious. After all, an unpolished diamond is indistinguishable from quartz to an untrained eye. Lucky for me, I have a trained eye. I am a teacher!

Let’s talk about the difference between asking students to write for me, versus writing for themselves. On any given Thursday I may come into class with an article of the week and ask students to read the article and respond. I have a rubric made for this exercise. It includes important measurements like, “The students supports their stance with substantial textual evidence,” and “The writing is clear, concise, and free from grammatical errors.” Beautiful, huh? I love this activity. I think it gives them more than any lecture ever could. Still, if given the choice, most of my students would not do this activity for fun. I know I wouldn’t. Further, some of my students won’t even do it for a grade. They sit pretending to write, only to turn in a few garbled sentences or nothing at all.

Two years ago I shifted my expectation about these articles. What if I ask them to just read the article and then write? What if I didn’t put anything else with the directions? What if my literal measurement was ‘read for ten minutes, write for ten?’ What would happen?

I went into the treasure troves of our current news cycle and dug up an article about West Virginia reintroducing elk into the wild. I printed off thirty copies. I plugged my writing prompt into Google Classroom. Actual Prompt: “After you read the article write for ten minutes. Before you ask Jimmy, I don’t care what you write about just do it.” (To be clear, Jimmy is and never was a real student.) And then, I sat back and waited for the deluge of confusion and the sound of crickets.

Instead a student raised their hand and called me over. He was one of my tough kids. About the only conversations he would ever have with me were about fishing, bailing hay, and how much he hated school. He rarely turned assignments in. I always struggled to reach him in meaningful ways. I walked over ready for the inevitable question. “Can’t I just tell you what I think? Why do I need to write it down?” But the only question he asked me was: “Can you read this and tell me if I’m doing it right?”

He handed me two front and back hand written pages. (I ignored that he was supposed to type it on his Chromebook.) I don’t know what magic is, but it is real my friends. My heart leapt–I mean that literally. I think it missed a few beats. I stood in the middle of class reading his pages. Students around me grew restless and talkative. I didn’t care. I just read. He talked about his neighbor who was a volunteer firefighter. He talked about hunting on his neighbor’s land. He talked about loss, and death, and his father, and loving the woods. He shared more in ten minutes than the entire previous semester. I was blown away.

That night, when I sat down to read the days responses I noticed that most of my students still made supported arguments. Some wrote stories about elk. Every single student wrote, and wrote a lot.

So, I made comments. I told them what I liked. I told them what confused me. I recorded myself reading poor grammar aloud and posted it to their digital feedback. But, I critiqued like a reader, not like a teacher. I let them know that I read what they wrote and I had an opinion. I sat the rubric aside for the night.

I share this story because I think we forget something fundamental about writing. It is a messy and personal act. We always talk about the finished product. We almost never recognize the process. All the real work comes in drafting, we can agree on that. But we think that a draft will just magically appear because we want students to write. The truth is, most students want to write. They just don’t want to write for anyone but themselves. They don’t want people to see their poor grammar. They don’t want to physically spend time with a blank page. They don’t want to be judged by their ideas. They don’t want to be uncomfortable.

Lately, I spend more writing instruction talking about what drives each individual student to share their ideas than I do teaching appositives and sentence variety. I do this by asking them to write all the time. Hours of our week is spent pen to paper, finger pad to keys. We write a lot. Why not? Some people tell me that if they practice writing with poor skills those poor skills will stick. Will they though? Will they? Well, the kid I mentioned above entered a writing contest last year. He didn’t win, but it was because his entry was too long. It wasn’t because he didn’t use commas. He used a non-fiction piece he wrote in my English 11 class. He workshopped it a lot before submission. What a novel idea? Editing… It’s almost as if confidence plays a role in writing. Maybe a bigger role than skill.

WVCTE is wondering, how do you get reluctant writers to build their confidence? Leave us a comment, Tweet is your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!

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