The Skill, the Process

I personally believe that the most significant factors on a student’s success cannot be traced to his or her childhood; students do not typically come into a classroom (particularly at 14 -15 years old) with a “ceiling” on their writing ability based on their home life and experiences. Rather, I believe writing is a skill that can be improved upon with directed practice. Indeed, English and writing teachers scaffold writing assignments to facilitate that improvement; we break an essay down to its parts: pre-writing/brainstorming, development of a thesis/topic sentence, drafting, self/peer revision, final draft.

It is unfortunate that many students don’t share that belief with me. Many of them are of the mind that “either you got it, or you don’t.” Even if they are willing to admit that they have improved as writers over the span of an academic year, they are hardly fain to attribute the scaffolded nature of English assignments as a significant cause of their improvement. Sucks…

So what did our three subjects have to say about what they think about the skill, and the practice, of writing?

If there is one glaring positive to take from their comments, it is that they identify improvement in their writing, and they recognize that the practice they get in the classroom is what causes that improvement.

M is a sharp young lady. She says that she is aware of the practical use of  the steps of writing. She admits that they are useful, and that they make her writing better when she does them, but she doesn’t do much more than copyediting for clarity/ errors. As I’ve said before, these are characteristics that could place her firmly in the “bad writer” category if she had less natural ability.

D is endearing to me because claims that he tries on his writing assignments, but he quickly wipes the smile from my face when he adds that the other steps in the process are “unnecessary.” He continues this contradiction by further stating that he values teacher feedback on written assignments, and uses it as indicators of where to focus his efforts on the next writing assignment. He says, “you’re not gonna be good as something if you start it but don’t practice,” which echoes some of the words of Jane Yolen, a world renowned author of children’s literature:

 Exercise the writing muscle every day, even if it is only a letter, notes, a title list, a character sketch, a journal entry. Writers are like dancers, like athletes. Without that exercise, the muscles seize up.

– Jane Yolen

I asked R if she carried out all the steps of the writing process, and she pretty much laughed in my face, adding a glib “No.”  Technology has made the drafting an revision processes happen concurrently for R, and she has heretofore not seen the value in going back again for more revision. Indeed, she doesn’t think, contrary to M and D, that these steps can help her writing improve.  She is the kind of student, though, who will and does ask for help. Further, she typically uses requisite revision time more fruitfully than M does.

If I could, I’d direct them to Ernest Hemingway, who famously said “The first draft of anything is shit.” It’s possible, likely even, these students are aware of that. I may have intimated how crappy their writing can be without revision. But even with that, these three kids are representative a large population of students. They don’t want to work those muscles, practice those skills, and transform a shitty, hasty draft that was composed in a scant few minutes into an exceptional piece of writing.

Yeah, yeah, we get it. Students don’t like to work. Big deal. What conclusions could one possibly draw from all this?


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