Wednesday, February 9, 2011

What Would You Do?

I was reading a web site that was meant to encourage adolescents and ran across this quote: “What would you do if you knew you wouldn’t fail?” I have read and heard this in several versions over the past few years. It has now almost become trite, but every time that I see it or hear it, I go back to the first time I heard it.
A presenter in some unremembered staff development asked the question. It forced me to immediately become introspective. I initially thought about what I might do and then realized that fear of failure stops me from trying so many things that I might try. I frequently have a new idea and then start to think through it. The first problem that I hit, I frequently think “Ohh that won’t work,” so I drop the idea. Is that fear of failure? I recently heard Jay-Z say that “You learn from your failures, not your successes.” If he and the anonymous speaker of this quote are right, what am I missing out on because I fear failure?
In turn, what do our students miss out on because of their fear of failure? When I used to teach the “giant” research paper to my juniors, I always had a least one student who would come up to me at the beginning of the assignment and say, “Give me a zero. I am not going to do this paper.” This frequently came from having no idea about what to do; the project was too daunting. With reassurance and step-by-step independent instruction, those students were able to be successful on the project. How many zeros are placed in our grade books because of that fear rather than from the “poor student attitude” that frequently gets credit for them?
As I mentioned in a previous blog, we know students want to write when they come to us in kindergarten and first grade. What are we doing to establish a fear of writing in some of our students by fifth grade?
1. Do we focus on what is wrong with the writing rather than on what is right? Teachers
spend all day on a Sunday to mark up the students’ papers with things like the
following: frag, CS, ?, run-on. This does not teach anything except the notion that “I
cannot write.”
2. Do we use a red pencil to mark EVERY SINGLE ERROR in the paper? Why do we
need to find every single mistake? There is always at least one error—always. I will go
through this blog entry many times and have others read it, but there will be at least
one mistake in it—guaranteed. Actually that is what created hesitation in me when I
first wanted to write a blog: English teachers always look for the small mistakes. What
would someone think if I, the Director of English, made a mistake in my writing? I
actually think that I am getting over that—I would rather that you criticize the ideas
before the writing errors. It is in the commentary on my ideas that the discussion and
eventual change will happen.
3. Do we give short shrift to the teaching of writing because of our own fear of writing? Do
we avoid teaching what we fear ourselves? I came to teaching loving to write; I have
been a writer since I was in first grade. But I had always feared poetry. So in my
graduate work, I extensively studied poetry allowing me to be comfortable in the
teaching of it. Who studies writing? Have you participated in one of the writing
projects? Have you read professionally to improve your teaching of writing? What
steps are we each taking to improve our writing instruction? Go to iTunes U and look at
the writing suggestions from Warwick College. Our wealth of technology in Spring
Branch gives us access to some excellent instruction on thousands of different topics.
4. Do we demean the students’ thinking in their first drafts and discourage attempts at
writing by putting failing grades on them? What are we grading when we place a grade
on a rough draft? Can someone really fail at their first thinking on a topic? While we
want students to have a plan and a rough draft to use in their writing of the final draft,
we need to think of ways to encourage thinking in the initial drafts rather than
diminishing it through negative criticism.
5. Do we nudge students toward success, or do we shove them so that they are always off

balance when they are trying to learn a new task? When Matt Glover talked about the
teacher’s responsibility in writing instruction with kindergarten and first grade students,
he talked about determining the next “nudge” that the student needs. I immediately
thought about all of the high school students who were “shoved” by me into writing rather
than nudged. I wonder how much they felt off balance rather than comfortable with the
writing process. Do we teach in palatable bites, or do we teach so far beyond their zone of
proximal development that they cannot learn anything.

So if Jay-Z is correct and we learn from our mistakes, we should know a lot about writing instruction. What can we do to help our students maintain their love of writing or regain it if it has been lost?

1. We must become writers ourselves. While I am late with the entry for this blog, I am pleased to have pulled writing more into my life. I am constantly thinking about possible topics for the blog. Writing this blog gives me a deeper understanding of the skills and behaviors necessary to write. I become the example of how one might plan for writing. Writing this blog also gives me writing samples to share with my students. This exposure is also destroying my fears around publishing my writing for public consumption and enhancing my pleasure with writing.
2. We should allow students to write about things that interest them. The great thing about this blog is that I am writing about topics that interest me. It deals with ideas that are relevant to my life. How often do we give students topics that have nothing to do with their lives or interests? If I were writing a blog about strategies for selling potato chips, how willing would I be in the writing? I wouldn’t know what to write. I would have to do a lot of work just to determine what I think about the selling of chips. It would be an overwhelming task, one that I really have no interest in doing. How often do we give those types of tasks to our students? We are charged with teaching the writing of different genres and modes. We are not required to teach specific topics, so why not give our students options that interest them?
3. We should give students good writing models to read. If students are going to write well, they need to read good models of writing. Those models may come from their peers, from their teachers, but just as importantly from professional writers. By reading extensively students collect a variety of writing styles to use as needed in their own writing. Without those models, how do students know the possibilities in writing? While they should not be restrained by what they read, students need examples upon which to apply their own thinking.
4. We should discuss the qualities of those good models. As students are given a variety of models for writing, the students need to include in their discussion the structures that exist within the sample. Rather than give students a formula that demands one set structure for a mode or genre, students can read published works to see the structures that exist and how each author has adjusted a structure to meet her or his own writing styles.

Writing is about ideas, about ways to communicate those ideas, about audiences who read those ideas. We are obligated to help our students discover their own ideas along with ways to communicate those ideas. If we do this with joy and respect, we won’t destroy any interest a student may have in writing. Instead, we will build on their excitement and interest, creating Spring Branch students who enjoy writing and who happily participate in that activity. I wonder: “What is your nudge? What is your next step to build writers among your students? What will you do tomorrow to begin or continue the process of building writers in your classroom?”