Within the past week we have witnessed something exciting in our Writing Studio program. We are seeing our basic writers begin to talk and act like writers. While their first writing assignments were not a dramatic improvement from their initial offerings, what has changed is the way that they prepare to write, the way that they talk about writing, and the way that they support each other as they work on their writing. Even though none of these students is yet prepared to give themselves the title of “writer,” those of us working in the Writing Studio know that by making these moves they have indeed become writers.
Mina Shaughnessy writes in “Errors and Expectations” that the determination of academic inferiority often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy which only increases the gap between that that student and success until it “begins to seem vast and permanent.” This gaping void is typically what basic writers see before them by the time they enter college. They have experienced repeated failure and received so much negative feedback regarding their writing ability it is no wonder that they fear and dread writing and writing classes. It is precisely this fear and dread that concerns me the most – far more than the writing errors they make.
My study of writing self-efficacy, or a writer’s belief in his or her ability to perform the writing task at hand, has shown that those writers with low writing self-efficacy have no expectation that any attempt will meet with success and so they are more likely to give up at the first sign of difficulty and less likely to work through those challenges. Just as Shaughnessy describes, these writers expect to fail and so they fail – again and again. Because they do not continue working they do not learn and grow as writers and the cycle of failure continues. The challenge for basic writing teachers is to break that cycle of repeated failure which only reinforces the writer’s lack of confidence.
Our pilot Writing Studio program is designed to break that cycle by leading our basic writers through the writing process, modeling the conversations that writers have about writing as they develop and revise, and providing practical support and positive reinforcement along the way. These ideas and practices are not new to basic writing classrooms. For decades, most basic writing teachers have known that they must be a combination of coach, cheerleader, and referee to provide a delicate balance of education, encouragement, and rule enforcement. However, the numbers are never in a basic writing teacher’s favor. Even if the basic writing class is small, typically the teacher is teaching multiple sections and simply does not have the time or energy to provide enough individual support. But more than that, due to their low writing self-efficacy and negative past experiences, these students often do not work well in writing groups (the efficient writing teacher’s answer to the numbers problem).
Our solution was to assign peer writers (upper level undergraduates) to each writing group. The peer writers serve as both leader and mentor for the basic writers. The peer writers lead discussions and ask questions to help develop and shape the writing as well as guide the revision process. Our hope was that providing an extra scaffold of support for our basic writers in the form of peer writers who are closer in age and expertise than the instructor would help the basic writers grow and develop as writers. After all, for many basic writers the writing teacher is seen as representing some unattainable goal of expertise. However, a fellow student is not so different from the basic writer and can be seen as offering a more accessible version of writing success.
If we can help these basic writers develop an understanding of the writing process and how successful writers think and work then we believe we have given them the tools to break the cycle of writing failure. Shaughnessy points out that “[w]riting is something writers are always learning to do” and that no writers are ever done learning. There is a limit to how much we can teach any set of writers in just 17 weeks, but if we can change the writer then there is no limit to how much they can learn and grow after they leave our classrooms. We can help them become writers, but that is where we need to begin – with the writer and not the writing.