This weekend, I had a rude awakening when I helped a friend–a senior in A.P. Literature–compose a 3 page essay comparing The Heart of Darkness with Apocalypse Now. Beyond the problem of boredom (after all, this particular essay has been written hundreds of times by students across the nation), I was disheartened by the lack of guidance provided to this student with regard to writing approaches. She felt herself to be a poor writer because 1) she believed that writing comes easily and painlessly to those who are good at it and 2) her teacher gave her very little ideas-driven feedback (and, to be honest, very little feedback at all). In response, I want to offer some suggestions for how teachers can revise their writing assignments and their conceptions of how student-writing happens in general:
- Avoid cliched writing prompts. Work with students as they self-create prompts. This helps students set goals for themselves, and to tune their goals to their own interests and abilities. Or, if you are nervous about allowing students to create their own prompts, create whole-class prompts and allow students to choose among a specific list.
- Teach writing as an interactive, collaborative practice. Students grow most when their writing is collected frequently and when they get feedback. They crave feedback. If teachers are unable to provide it on full drafts, they should at least collect and provide feedback on “digestible bits” (1-2 pages or even 2 paragraphs!) so that students learn what is working and what isn’t. Some of my most productive feedback sessions with students do not come in the form of written comments, but rather in conferences. If possible, use classroom time for conferencing as students draft their papers, plan their papers, or read/comment on each other’s working drafts. Writing is continuous. By collecting a little bit at a time, teachers help students the last-minute rush that so often leads to hurried and non-reflective writing.
- Broaden assignments beyond literature. Almost all of the writing I did in high school was literature-based, despite the fact that most writing students will do in college and in business is NOT literature-based! Vary up your routine by asking students to work with multiple genres and mediums. Some ideas include: Create a public service announcement for a local organization and write a pitch letter encouraging that organization to use your ad. Compose an editorial for your local paper on a topic you feel passionate about. Perform a rhetorical analysis of a speech. Perform a visual analysis of a poster, advertisement, or short film clip. We should strive to remember that writing is not only reflective of fictional texts.
- Encourage students to discover their own best writing practices. For me, writing includes yoga, running, talking it out on dog walks, cooking-breaks, list-making, and many other modes. I, for instance, nearly always write on a computer. By assigning a variety of in-class exercises that encourage these kinds of writing behaviors, students can broaden their at-home approaches (and feel less discouraged when their texts do not come easily or painlessly).