Metawriting posts from the new blog location

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Breaking the cycle of defeat: Transforming students into writers

I teach writing for a living and I direct a National Writing Project site which means I work with both pre-service teachers and practicing teachers to improve their writing pedagogy. As a result I reflect and study a great deal of research and theory concerning the teaching of writing.

But what does it mean to teach writing or, as I like to think of it, to teach writers? Pat Schneider defines a writer as someone who writes and I won’t argue with that definition. I typically begin my semester with a discussion about what it means to be a writer and this is ultimately where we end up. However, even though they accept this definition, many of my students do not really believe they are writers even though they write. How do we make our students believe they are writers or can be? I know most of my students come to me believing that they are not writers and they cannot become writers. Can we change those beliefs? Is it important to change those beliefs?

Schneider describes “not being able to write” as a “learned disability” which is the result of “scar tissue” or a lack of confidence developed in reaction to unhelpful responses to your writing in school and at home. This rings true with the stories that my students tell about their previous experiences with writing. These students have been told through verbal and written comments as well as grades that they are not writers. It seems quite natural to me that they would take that feedback one step further to believe that they cannot become writers. Why does this matter?

Research shows that students with high writing apprehension or the scar tissue that Schneider describes are much less likely to engage in writing activities, are much more likely to give up when faced with writing challenges, and simply do not work at writing and learning to write to the same degree as their more confident peers. Blythe et al argue that for many at-risk students writing failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as students do not work as hard because they already believe they are doomed to failure. It is also possible that this sense of doom and failure has much broader impact as well. Patrick Sullivan writes “Is it possible that the most lasting and significant learning outcome many students take away from English classes is a lifelong aversion to writing?” He argues that at least part of our national education challenges, namely our “college readiness crisis” and “remediation problem,” stem directly from this aversion.

Sullivan’s argument struck a chord that reverberated to the core of my teacher soul and resonates strongly with my own belief that we focus too much on forms and failures in our writing classrooms. I am not arguing that grammar, spelling, punctuation, and proper format are not important – they are – but too many teachers and hence too many students see these as the only measures of good writing. It is possible to master these skills but only through practice – which those scarred and scared students will not even attempt unless we can find a way to break the cycle of defeat.

Among the arguments that Blythe et al make about teaching writing is that more writing instruction is not always the answer for these students – at least not until we have addressed their low self-efficacy. If we do not attend to their self-beliefs and break that cycle of defeat then writing instruction will likely be for naught. White and Bruning posit that without considering beliefs, teachers may view dimensions of writing quality too simply. The authors argue that explicitly addressing beliefs improves opportunities for students who may not have been taught adequate writing skills and lack positive beliefs to support their positive engagement in the writing process. We must spend more time in our classrooms attending to the self-beliefs of our students as well as attending to specific writing lessons if we want to break the cycle of despair and defeat. We must help our students become confident writers or it may well be that the only things they take away from our writing classes are scar tissue and a lifelong aversion to writing.

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