Last week I made the argument in “Breaking the Cycle of Defeat” that we need to spend more time in our classrooms attending to the self-beliefs of our students as well as the specific writing lessons we want/need to impart. I contended that if we want to break the cycle of despair and defeat then we must help our students become confident writers so they take more from our classes than scar tissue and a lifelong aversion to writing. This week I want to address the ways that we can help those scared and scarred students become writers.
We must begin by making our classrooms a safe place to try and to fail. If students are given the chance to participate in low-stakes writing that is offered an audience but not assessment then they are more likely to write – both more often and at greater length. In addition, they will be more willing to experiment and take risks with their writing once they learn that the writing will be not be assessed. Examples of the types of low-stakes writing assignments I use in my own classes include brainstorming activities, reflection journals, and discussion board posts. These writings are shared with the class and receive comments which are focused on the content and not the form of the message.
Writers also need to read. They need to read to inspire and spark new ideas as well as to find models and mentors. Student writers should definitely read professional, polished writing, but they should also read the work of peers – especially pieces not yet polished and still in process. Even better, developing writers should see the early drafts and unpolished pieces of their mentors and teachers. Too often, struggling writers believe they are the only writers who struggle – and worse, they believe that good writing arrives fully formed and polished to other writers. They do not understand the time and work that goes into writing – and telling them is not enough. They need to see it happen and they need to experience it. They need to be led through the process before they will attempt it on their own. In my classes I use writing workshop to guide students through this process. We brainstorm and plan writing together, students share writing in various stages so everyone can see their process and progress, and then we revise and edit their writing together.
However, the most crucial aspect of writing workshop is feedback. Students should receive various types and levels of feedback from a variety of sources. Most important, that feedback should be focused on providing useful, supportive information – not simply negative assessment. During workshop, the idea is to provide feedback to help develop and shape a piece of writing. In addition, student writers should provide feedback to others. Engaging in discussions of writing as writers and with other writers can not only help student writers improve the specific piece they bring to the workshop, but also teach them how writers work and collaborate. My hope is that providing this type of guided feedback will help them learn and grow as writers as well as develop their own writing process which will support that continued growth and development long after they leave my class.
While I hope these steps will help my students become less scared and more hopeful about their progress as writers, I also like to have conversations about the struggles and fears that all writers face no matter how much writing success they may have achieved. In this way, our writing workshop offers support for the improvement of the writer as well as the writing. I understand well, as a result of my own research focused on writing apprehension and writing self-efficacy, how the past can so dominate a writer emotionally that there are actual physical manifestations of that fear. How can we expect a struggling writer to work through something that causes physical and emotional stress without addressing it? That is why we need to have real conversations and share real stories – our own as well as those of our students plus a judicious sprinkling of the stories of more famous writers. I cannot promise that working through these four steps will erase the scars that our student writers bear, but I know thanks to my own research as well as that of Albert Bandura and others that we can reduce writing apprehension and increase writing confidence by attending more closely to our students self-beliefs.