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?”


  1. I spent time with two 4th-grade boys this week who were convinced they had absolutely nothing to write about. After giving them my usual speech about how their lives and experiences have value and how writing signifies the importance of their lives, both found something to write about. The important thing, though, was watching one boy's face light up when he began talking about the first time he saw his baby brother. He was honestly aglow with love for that child. We're working on him transferring that depth of emotion into his writing--if he can get there, think what a magnificent writer he can be!!!

  2. I always felt that the writing topics in high school were ridiculous. I remember the feeling of disgust when told to clear my desk and get out a pen and paper for a writing assignment. I still do. I put off the writing intensive core curriculum requirement until the next to last semester of college. For me it wasn't fear of failure. I was the one to ask why I made a 98 and would rewrite if I happen to make an 89. The hardest part for me is getting over the initial negativity associated with the thought of writing. Perhaps it is the years of being handed a prompt unrelated to any interest of high school students that turns them off.

  3. Every high school related writing assignment that I can remember was a negative experience for me. (I do not remember writing assignments before high school.) It's funny... I liked my teachers, but when it came to getting feedback about writing, they seemed to change/morph into a different person.

    Their teaching of reading was never ever connected to their teaching of writing. When I learned this, my teaching changed forever, and my students' writing changed forever.

  4. I don't remember writing much in high school. I know that it wasn't an issue for me. In junior high school, I attended an open concept school. I was allowed to choose projects to do. Things to research. books to read. I loved it. Those things are innovative today, yet I was doing it too many years ago to say out loud. While we don't have to go to that perspective, I would love for us to try to meet the needs of our studetns not our grade book.

  5. It's strange how we think the things we did must be "right" because that's how we did them, and how hard it is to shake those convictions. When I started teaching my SAT course, I was instructed not to worry about grades--after all, it's a tutoring gig, not a school classroom. We found that telling students they could actually talk (IRE format though it was) and that their homework wouldn't be graded set their SAT studies apart from "school" work.

    At the same time, I never doubted the value of grades as a measuring stick for student progress. When my professors talk about grade-free classrooms and intrinsic motivation, I always thought, "but how?"

    Now I'm teaching the same tutoring course as a semester-long course in a high school, and I was stunned to be told I had to grade the students! I was stunned, and I felt all those comments about the harm grades can do come back to me, now with the weight of truth.

    I'm giving my students a quiz today, but I think most of their grades will come from how active they are in classroom discussions. Thanks for several things to think about before I talk about their essays!

    Kelsey Arnold

  6. As a student majoring in English and will hopefully graduate this May, I still find writing difficult. I may have taken the 30 hours of upper-English classes, but that does not mean I write well. I am an insecure writer even though I love to write and read on my own without another person judging it for personal use. However, I know I will not learn the proper mechanics or writing skills unless I have my writing critiqued. I still lack confidence in writing and get frustrated when I do not know how to start a paper or when I receive my graded paper back with all the mechanic and usage errors. Although, the English professors I had have always managed to write something positive on my paper. I guess you could say that positive, written encouragement after receiving a graded paper helps a student feel a little at ease knowing they did at least one positive aspect right.

  7. These posts just confirm what we've always known--all you ever need to know you learned in Kindergarten. The questions posed and the list of 5 steps to creating a love of writing describes precisely what happens daily in Kindergarten. Children come into school at age 4 or 5 loving to write, believing they are writers, and feeling fearless.

    What happens along the way?

    And, how do we make 'it' not happen any more?

  8. Well done Diane. I think your third question hits the nail on the head. Often, the most critical writing teacher is the one who doesn't do very much writing. Their logic is that the teacher must find and mark each and every error in their students' work based on what the grammar books teach. Teachers who themselves don't write have little or no appreciation (and perhaps little or no knowledge either) for the writing process. They often fail to see where the breakdown in the process happens for their students, so they give them poor scores. They discount student attempts at risk-taking to lack of writing skill. What a tragegy!

  9. This is part of the reason why when I grade my students' papers, the majority of their grade is based on content and/or techniques. I always structure my rubrics so that students can still get an 85 on a paper even if their grammar and mechanics are horrible.

    I also NEVER write on student papers. I save all of my comments for that section of the rubric. To me, marking up their papers is demeaning. It was for me when I was growing up, and I never want to make my students feel that way. My comments are usually questions that provoke them to think more about what they have written about. Very rarely do I ever just list all of the things that they did wrong.

    Lastly, I never use red pen when I am grading their writing. It's something about red ink that conjures up feelings of apprehension and unease. I tend to use a more colorful array when grading student work, and I find that they are more likely to take my comments into consideration because of it.

    Ashley M.

  10. Many of the middle school kids I see are writing. Many of them love to write notes to their friends; they are texting and sometimes emailing. Maybe we could figure out a way to build upon some of the writing they ARE doing.

  11. I agree that we need to be writing along with them and showing them our own struggles and triumphs with it!