by Harmony Button
The following is the transcript of a talk I gave to the Waterford Parents Association on October 1, 2014.
As Director of Writing at the Waterford School, my mission is to help faculty across all disciplines make the most of writing as a learning tool, as well as a means of communication. The act of writing is a powerful vehicle of student exploration, not just a way for students to provide answers. By encouraging teachers and students to see the dual nature of writing (as both an activity and an artifact), I hope to help build a community where good writing — and so, good listening, good thinking, and good grappling with difficult things — is celebrated and appreciated.
In schools, teachers often treat writing as a thing that students produce, instead of an activity in which they are engaged. We see writing as a means to an end: a way to communicate, a vehicle through which we demonstrate understanding or illustrate analytic thought. In this form, writing tends to feel like a performance — students do it, and are graded on the quality of the outcome.
This is a valid thing to do, and we should continue to use writing as a form for evaluating student learning and expression. But I think that the act of putting words on paper is similar to dropping a pebble in a pond — there are ripples that expand into the areas of student life that we don’t often expect, rarely see, and can’t ever really measure. How we teach and approach writing in our classrooms impacts our students’ personal experiences, and holds pedagogical and philosophical implications for our school.
For some students, writing becomes deeply personal. Now, I am not a psychologist, a therapist or a counselor, so you should take the following observations with a grain of salt, but here’s my hypothesis on why some students end up feeling like they need to write, as a coping mechanism. Writing is a way of turning a busy mind inward, of allowing the ego to step aside so that the burgeoning, struggling thinker can face the difficulty of the struggle. Some students figure this out on their own — they become journal addicts, poets or fiction writers early on; they know themselves best through their writing. The process of writing becomes a mirror they hold up to their minds, and in their darkest moments, they look to this process as a means of grounding themselves, of staying true to a sense of secure identity. They write in order to discover themselves, and in doing so, they write themselves into the people they want to become.
When this happens, it’s life changing for a student. It’s like being handed the keys to the kingdom, and all the sudden, any hardship seems as if it can be weathered. Sometimes, even in the midst of the most awkward, difficult or heart-wrenching moments, these young writers will find themselves thinking, but what a story. What a story I can tell. How do I say… and how would I describe… and then, they’re off and running, already “writing” their experiences, even as they’re happening. And even when they don’t know how to tell the story, or even if it is a story that is too difficult or confusing to tell in the moment, these young writers know that there is a certain comfort in sitting down to a blank page and letting it fill with words that they themselves did not anticipate or expect. As I quote early and often in my own writing classes, the novelist EM Forster said it best when he wrote, “how do I know what I think until I see what I say?” After teaching Creative Writing and watching young writers grow into slightly more adult-like writers, I tend to take this philosophy one step farther. How do I know who I am until I see how I think? And how do I know what I think until I see what I say?
Not all students are immediately drawn into the intoxicating, semi-therapeutic depths of the blank page. Some students find their identity’s mirror inside the flux and fascination of physics, or the immeasurable nuance of music. The truth is, there are potential mind-mirrors everywhere you look instead a liberal arts education. So why, then, am I talking to teachers of all disciplines about writing? Why does writing get to be special? How does writing cross boundaries?
Well, because beyond being magical, writing is also an incredibly practical means of engaging students in thoughtful, meaningful ways. All disciplines use discussion of some sort to promote and enhance learning. On some level, writing is merely a logical extension of the verbal exchange. The closer we can make these two activities, the less likely students are to become writing-inhibited.
The truth is, many students fear writing. They dread English assignments. They sit in front of blank computers and get frustrated. They say things like, “I don’t know what my teacher wants. This doesn’t make sense. I don’t care. This book is dumb.”
Most often, I read this as code for: “I am intimidated by the expectation that I should read this thing and immediately have smart and articulate things to say about it.”
And who wouldn’t be? If we don’t build in a process of discovery into our expectations for polished writing, then students will continue to hate it, dread it, and frankly, do pretty poorly at it. Without an understanding of the writing process, we’re setting students up for failure.
So, how do we create this model of process-oriented writing assignments?
The first thing to do is to lower the stakes. A student’s first draft should be all about ideas and insights, connections, questions, problems and confusions. It should be a real mess. There might be words that aren’t really words, words that are misspelled, words that might look like the right word but actually mean something totally unintended. The minute a student avoids using the word they want to use because they’re not sure how to spell it, they’ve drawn a tiny box around the wild ranging freedom of the mind. They’re trapped. Their paper is going to be boring and predictable to anyone reading it because it will have been boring and predictable to the poor student suffering through writing it.
As parents, the best thing you can tell your students at home when they are facing down ye ol’ cursor, watching it blink blink blink on a blank screen, is that words are FREE. You can always make more of them, and you can delete them at no cost. If you make a mess, then at least you have a fighting chance of seeing the underlying shape of the thing you are trying to create.
Imagine if your student brought home an art project. The assignment is to draw a face. Grumbling, your child sits at the kitchen table, pulls out a piece of blank paper, puts the pencil down in the upper left hand corner, and proceeds to move the pencil from left to right, like an ink-jet printer.
“Is that really working for you?” you ask. “Is that supposed to be… a nose?”
“I need to finish this!” your student complains, refusing to move in anything but linear lines, refusing to go back over any previous marks. By the time they have reached the bottom right hand corner of the page, there are a lot of markings on the paper. But how well does it resemble a face? Eh… not so much.
The point is, this is a terrible way to draw a face. It’s also a terrible way to write anything. You have to sketch in lots of little light lines first, before you commit to any bold ink. You have to watch the eye evolve, and then encourage its evolution. At some point, you get some clarity. You start to make bolder moves. You add depth, detail, nuance. And if you’re very lucky, by the time you’re done, you think you even get some kind of expression from that face. It’s complicated. It represents a real person, full of conflict and confusion and desire. It’s a static picture, but it suggests greater depth.
This is what good writing should do, as well.
So how do we get there?
First of all, the school-wide commitment to Canvas sets teachers up to build more process-based writing assignments into their curriculum. By offering more opportunities to engage in online environments, we reach students who are reluctant to participate verbally in class, and we validate all student input, regardless of how assertive or outspoken the child might be inside their classroom community. If these online interactions are framed as a means of discovery or moments of brainstorming, then students interact with each other through writing without becoming paralyzed by the typical insecurities, such as not knowing how to spell a word, or punctuate a sentence. Teachers can distinguish between writing that is meant to be messy and generative, vs. writing that is meant to be polished and perfected. By learning this distinction, students are more likely to actually embrace the process of revision, and to reap the rewards. And since research indicates that it is only through genuine revision that a student develops skill sets that are transferrable to other disciplines, classes, or life-situations, this is a pretty important thing to make sure our students are doing.
Inside the classroom, we can use short writing exercises or thought experiments to gauge student understanding or engagement. Students who say they understand a concept or can select the appropriate answer from a multiple choice test may not be able to actually explain this concept to someone else. By framing writing assignments as opportunities to “teach” instead of “perform,” students are much more likely to think through their writing process. If a science teacher asks a student to “explain the theory of relativity to your sixth-grade sister,” this question is probably going to get much more thorough, thoughtful answers than just the typical test question that asks a student to “explain the theory of relativity.” As teachers, we can set contexts, define audiences, and encourage students to continually think about why their learning matters. We can move them away from route memorization and back into the world of meaning-making, where the magic of discovery takes place, and where they are much more likely to experience the deep satisfaction that comes from learning difficult things.
Writing is a process that furthers learning. We use it in every class. It is not always performative. There is a wide variety in the ways students should expect to encounter writing, and a variety of expectations that a teacher might have for any particular assignment. Students should expect to encounter writing in various forms, and they should not expect all writing requirements to be the same. They should learn to move fluidly between disciplines and genres, looking for the forms, structures, and purpose of any given assignment.
As part of our initiative to increase writing support across the curriculum, we have expanded the Writing Center. We now have two faculty members who staff the writing center during MS and US lunches, as well as after school. Students can sign up for consultations online through Canvas, or they can drop in to see if there is an available consultant. The writing center even has its first student-tutor, an upper school senior who is training to become a writing consultant. Last week, under faculty supervision, this senior met with a middle school student who came in for help on her English homework, and their interaction was everything we could have hoped for in a fifteen minute writing consultation. The writing center is designed to support every level of writer in any stage of the writing process. It is open to support writing requirements in any class, not just the humanities. Through this initiative, as well as through an increased focus on the value of the writing process inside all classrooms, we hope to cultivate a greater community of writers at Waterford.