Taking the Fear Out of Writing

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.


10 thoughts on “Taking the Fear Out of Writing

  1. thomasunc September 25, 2016 / 1:11 am

    I wish I was in your class. I have so many negative feelings about writing because of being a poor speller, grammarian, and having my work corrected all over the place. You are giving your kids a gift by highlighting their areas for improvement, teaching into their mistakes, and then letting them make adjustments.
    I might also suggest talking about the struggle writers face when confronting a blank page. I show my kids a lot of my personal writing. I save my notes, drafts, strike outs, and edited pages (from my friendly editors). There are numerous stories about successful writers and their struggles with the blank page.
    An art exhibit gave me a breakthrough with facing the blank page. The artist could not start. He suffered from how to begin. Therefore he did all of his drawing on printed pages. He drew on newspapers, the margins of books, receipts, … anything as long as it was not blank. Now sometimes when I am struggling to write I start with, “I don’t know what to write. I know I am writing about …” and that is a way for me to begin.
    Keep up the good work.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jennybee618 September 27, 2016 / 12:39 pm

      I like that you show your kids your edited work. It shows them that writing isn’t just something that they have to do for school — they will be writing for the rest of their lives! Maybe you could write something and give them the opportunity to edit it for you and offer you some of that feedback?


  2. leighahall September 26, 2016 / 1:31 pm

    I love this post so much! I love that you’re engaging them in the process and helping them understand that part of writing is that it’s hard! I, personally, love to write. BUT, I will also tell you that there are days when it is so difficult, and terrible, and hard. That is a part of writing, and it will never go away. You are teaching your students that writing is a process but that it is a messy and non-linear one. I am sure many will be uncomfortable with this, but it is a truly amazing experience.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jennybee618 September 27, 2016 / 12:42 pm

      I’ve always loved to write, too. But, you’re right — some days, I hate it! (Like the day I wrote this blog post — I started over 5 times before I got going with this one!)

      I’ve also found that writing with my students works well to show this messy struggle. When I am typing something that is posted on the projector in front of the class, they get to see me struggle with it. They offer suggestions and feedback and we turn it into something.

      None of it ever seems to help them lose the fear completely — but maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe if they fear it just a little bit it makes them write something they care about!


  3. emilyraehoward September 26, 2016 / 11:56 pm

    This post was very intriguing to read! I love the math video you shared and how you were able to implement this strategy with your students. Many students are worried about their grades, so they are unable to focus on the writing because all they are concerned about is what grade they are going to get. This strategy helps them feel at ease and know they can make improvements on their writing. It was so nice to read that the lightbulbs went off and they were able to understand what they needed to improve. I was not always excited to write when I was in high school, but if I had a teacher using this strategy I know I would have been more engaged in what I was writing about and be able to make improvements on my writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jennybee618 September 27, 2016 / 12:49 pm

      You’re so right about the concern about grades! Especially where I teach, it seems that’s what my students care about far more than producing quality work. They don’t understand (or want to understand) that failure and errors are a necessary part of learning. Anything that teaches them that it’s okay to make mistakes seems to be a step in the right direction. As teachers,we can’t change the culture of our schools as a whole, but we can certainly change it in our classrooms!


  4. dezvillalobos September 28, 2016 / 4:07 am

    I really like this. You are empowering your students to write without fear, and learn in the process. I was actually reading an article for a class I took in which the author saw the same problem you did; students are afraid to put themselves out there. She went on to explain that she thinks that the reason that students are like this is that growing up, their work is constantly judged; even if the judgement comes in the form of praise, it is still a judgement. She went on to say that this expectation of judgement of almost everything they do causes anxiety. I think your approach eliminates this feeling.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. brennalche September 28, 2016 / 3:57 pm

    This is an awesome post. I love how you saw a recurring issue and addressed it, in such an awesome way. I remember being that student who was scared to write. I went through K-12 struggled with writing. My struggles soon turned to fear very quickly. It took me until my freshman year of college to over come that fear. I love how you are teaching your students the process of writing along with teaching them to be self efficient. Your students will someday thank you for teaching them such a valuable skill that they will use forever.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. jlong450 September 28, 2016 / 6:17 pm

    Very interesting write. I am current student at the collegiate level and even to this day a small sense of fear is ignited when papers get assigned. The only thing most students worry about is the length of the paper. With some assignments that answer is no length requirement. The simple things like not knowing I have to write 5-7 pages clears the mind a lot more, making it easier to write. I think its not always the writing itself that keeps fear in students, its questions like you proposed in this write of what to say, how to say it, how long is this have to be, APA or MLA, or even do we have to have a works cited? Also, I think its a good thing in writing to allow students to be free with their writings

    Liked by 1 person

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