Twas the day before winter break
And all through the class
All the students were antsy
Wishing for time to past fast.
Now the crux of it all
Is we are in the midst of a unit
Work has to be done over the break
In order to be ready to revise and tune it.
But during holiday time
It is so easy to forget
About school and work
We let all those habits slip.
So how do we motivate them?
How do we keep them writing?
By doing the work beside them
Because we never stop fighting.
“The worst thing you write is better than the best thing you did not write.” –Anon
“Writing is messy. And that’s okay.”
This is what I reiterate to my students over and over again. They need to know that they are not going to wax poetic as soon as their pen hits the paper. And this is not only okay, it is how it should be.
I have been teaching English for 15 years, and when I invest time in my own writing it is definitely messy (if you could only see the revisions I made to this post alone). The type of writing I do with my students though, comes more naturally – but years of practice will do that.
This innate ‘classroom writing’ skill that I have developed over time can cause the writing I do with my students to not seem as messy. Which in turn causes a lack of authenticity in the process I am trying to demonstrate.
Something is missing
This missing essence of authenticity can cause many students to look at what I may consider a rough draft to be what they might consider a final draft.
Before I knew better…
For too many years I only showed my students a final draft of a summative assessment. We would first discuss the qualities of the perfected exemplar for what made it successful; we would then discuss the rubric for what skills and standards would be part of their process. And then we would start at the beginning…or rather, they would.
I, of course, would help navigate them through those skills and standards. But was that exemplar they were chasing on the horizon enough to motivate them? No. Full stop.
What about all the messy middle – what does that look like?
We need to offer students more glimpses at what the messiness can look like in order for them to buy into the concept.
A little awkwardness…
When I started writing beside my students I will admit that it felt a little forced. And it was definitely difficult. And it took time. But it was time that I was willing to put in to show them (1) that writing was in fact messy and it is definitely a process, but also (2) that what they were doing was important enough for me to do it, too. It is the type of writing that matters; it is the type of writing that is relevant to real life.
Show the messiness.
The explicitness of this process gives students permission to make mistakes, to take creative risks, to fail. Because in all of their messiness they will find the words that are important; they will find their voice.
Here is the Google doc that my students have access to which shows them the process I am working through in writing my own memoir and they have access to it from the very start. (This helps to add a sense of accountability in the process.)
Giving access to your own Google doc won’t always work. And you do not need to be this explicit in every unit. So what are some other ways to encourage the messiness?
1. Limit the time. [Quick writes]
When you give short amounts of time for students to write, they have no choice but to be messy. And using their writers notebooks as a place to collect ideas is important (and critical for the next part of this process which I will discuss in a successive post).
I like them to talk it out first by giving them topics and sentence stems to discuss. For 3’ish minutes the cacophony in the class is music to my ears. And then it goes silent while they take a minute or two to write down all their thoughts.
We did about 6 rounds over two classes using this method and their pages filled with words and ideas.
2. Increase the volume. [Free Writes]
Another strategy is to increase the time of free writing. On the first day of this unit I get them to write for 5 solid minutes about one or more ‘significant relationship(s)’ in their life (they had brainstormed ideas for a person, place, animal, event, or object already). They chose one idea and wrote about it. The next class they wrote for 7 minutes, then 10, then 15, and we are at 20 now.
It is always a fun moment when a student says: “That was only 20 minutes?” Sustained writing is a skill, and it is one we need to give students time to build consistency with.
Now both of these strategies are effective for me because (1) my students have their own writers notebook and (2) we have established the purpose of them: to be a place to take risks, be creative, brainstorm ideas, etc…
There is also an understanding of the difference between a quick write (when you are given a topic or prompt and use it as a base to write from) and a free write (when you can take your writing in whichever direction you want).
At least forget about it in the messy part. Students just need to write — the grammar part can come after in the revising stage. This is also where grammar can become something fun to play with and control and not something that is either “right or wrong”.
I was reminded of the importance of keeping this grammar-less stage in the beginning process of writing by my principal as she sent me this article in the Atlantic (it is a few years old now, but still a good read and gives some helpful tips).
At the end of the day…
…it is within the messiness that a student will find their “something to say”. And they all have something to say:
A week ago a student said to me: “I don’t have anything significant that has happened to me. I haven’t met a a half brother, or experienced a death in my family, or had a serious injury.” Before I could reply, her friend looked at her and said: “What about some happy things? What good things have happened to you that have changed how you see someone or something?” The original student smiled: “Well…I moved here and met you.” (Cliche, I know…but true nonetheless)
This student isn’t going with that idea, but it did open her up to the possibility of having “something to say” and the words are toppling out onto her page now — and they are messy and beautiful at the same time.
How do you promote messiness in the writing process? What other ‘non-negotiables’ do you follow? What other strategies do you use in the building of content phase? Let me know what you think on Twitter @readwritemore