My 9th grade students have a big problem: They are terrified to write. Given a prompt or a question, they will sit and stare at a blank paper, pencil in hand, for 5, 10, 15 minutes. When they finally raise their hands to ask for help, their questions are mostly the same: “What do you want me to say?” or “How am I supposed to say it?” Or, worse, “How long do you want this to be?”
Over the last few years of teaching 9th grade, I’ve noticed this issue getting worse. But, this year, it seems especially bad. The last straw came last week, when a tearful boy stood hovering in the doorway after class desperately questioning me about the piece of in-class writing he had just submitted: “But, did I write enough? Is it like you want it? It was so hard, please don’t take points off!”
Somewhere along the way, students like this one have learned that struggling with writing means they are bad at it. They’re learned that errors are unacceptable. They’ve learned that they should put it down on the paper and forget about it; that once is enough. They’ve learned that writing is a product.
I wholeheartedly believe in the power of writing and reading. I find it to be a necessary, valuable component of literacy. In order to become better readers, we need to become better writers. By becoming better writers, we become better readers. In my book, you cannot have one without the other.
So, in my class, we read. But, also, we write. A lot. You can imagine the shock and terror 96 9th graders like Student X above feel on the first day of class when I tell them we will be writing on a daily basis. Let’s just say they’re not too happy about it.
But, what I want my students to know is that writing is more about process than product. That we have to grapple and struggle, and self-edit. That it takes many revisions and re-starts and multiple tries in order to get it right.
Frustrated with the clash between my students’ backgrounds and my philosophy, I needed a way to make them peacefully coexist. So, this week, I tried a new tactic.
Each day this week we examined a universal, emotional theme in literature by reading a poem and short story combo that I paired specifically for each lesson. As a class, we read the poem, and I modeled annotation for my students as we discussed meaning and technique. Then, we discussed the poem’s theme, all of which were pretty easy to extract with a bit of digging.
With a list of theme statements posted on the board in front of them, my students were then set to read one of three classic short stories paired with the poetry, each of which, of course, conveniently fit the theme extracted from the poem. Reading with the theme in mind, students annotated each story for specific evidence that supported the theme.
Then, I asked my students to take a final step, which, to my reluctant writers, felt like a huge leap: Write a claim that explores the universal theme present in the story/poem combo. Use evidence from each to support the response. While I did answer clarification questions, I kept my writing advice to a minimum. I wanted them to struggle and grapple.
Once I had their responses, I implemented a new grading tactic, inspired by this Teaching Channel Video where a math teacher highlights her students errors on math tests. Using one of their three claims for the week, I highlighted areas for improvement. I didn’t make many comments — just highlights. Then I returned them ungraded, along with the other two claims that had no highlighting or comments whatsoever. My logic was pretty simple: if they made the mistakes on one, chances are they did them on the other two as well.
I spent 10 minutes explaining the “key” to my highlights — really just a collection of the same things I kept noticing over and over as I read: grammar errors in titles, rehashing of the plot versus literary analysis, awkward sentence structures.
Then I turned them loose for 45 minutes to edit and revise all three, then resubmit for a final grade. My instructions were specific: do not rewrite. Edit what you have. Scratch things out, draw arrows, erase and revise.
At first they were stumped, and I fielded a few “why did you highlight this” questions from each class. But, then, exactly what I’d been hoping for happened. The lightbulbs went off. They got it. They looked at their highlighted responses and compared them to the unhighlighted ones, and started making corrections. They turned to each other and started asking for advice and feedback. And, the advice and feedback they gave each other was good. “You’re using too many words in your claim,” they told each other. Or, “this evidence is okay but it’s not really relevant to what you are trying to say.” Suddenly, they were doing it all on their own, and they weren’t afraid of it.
The stack of papers I have to grade this weekend is a rainbow array of colors. They are filled with arrows, strikethroughs, and amendments. And, I’m totally okay with that, because my kids are losing the fear and learning the process.
I will absolutely do this again. My hope is that by learning the necessity of struggling and the power of revision, my students will feel less fear and frustration, and more freedom to express their thoughts.