How High School English Teachers Can Encourage Revision-Minded Writing

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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).

About taylo206

I am an Assistant Professor of Composition, Rhetoric and Professional Writing at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
This entry was posted in Teaching Approaches, Writing Exercises. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to How High School English Teachers Can Encourage Revision-Minded Writing

  1. J. H. Adams says:

    I agree with your suggestions, but allow me to throw in one word of caution: a typical high school English teacher is probably teaching around 120 students, all year round (that’s assuming 6 classes/day at 20 students/class; I have a bad feeling that it’s often much more). Responding often to student drafts requires time, something that is difficult enough at the college level but may be impossible at the high school level. Regular in-class work/feedback might work, but I’m not sure whether multiple drafts will in most classes. That said, I have seen some students in the Writing Center at UC who evidently had fantastic high school English teachers who really got at the nitty gritty details, right down to the rhetorical impact of punctuation, so it’s certainly possible to do some in-depth writing instruction, it’s just difficult to manage. (I wouldn’t be surprised if most of those teachers were working at private high schools with low enrollments.)

    I totally agree that it’s horrifying how little writing guidance high school English teachers provide. The obsession with literature I can forgive, sort of — I’m still kind of obsessed with it, after all. One of my students said to me that she was really surprised at the sort of things I was teaching in my ENG101 class; I suspect she had been expecting something literature-based. She seemed happy with the shift and I think some transitioning some non-literature-based work into high school English classes would be well worth the effort. And I totally agree that all too often students get hammered with overly generic prompts. Such prompts (a) make it easy to plagiarize but more importantly (b) can stifle student creativity.

  2. trauthke says:

    Thanks (as always!) for your feedback and thoughts, John Henry. I agree that high school teachers are extremely overwhelmed with work–especially in states like Kentucky that seem always to be in a kind of “low-test-score” crisis. My suggestions are an ideal, I know, but I think we should at least have these needs in mind not only as teachers, but also as citizens. How might students get reader-feedback from other community members beyond their teachers? Parents, yes of course. But what about other adults or college students? With digital technologies, maybe we can create a system of sharing that would invite and encourage community members to share and respond to each other’s work. Such a “move” would take a while to structure and create at first, but would lend quickly (maybe after a year?) to a habitual practice. I suppose I’m thinking of a website where parents and students and community members could share and provide each other with feedback.

  3. trauthke says:

    Really, this article by Bazerman explains my thoughts much better than I can! Read section 7: http://wac.colostate.edu/books/selves_societies/bazerman/bazerman.pdf. Or read my notes in the blog post above!

  4. J.H. Adams says:

    You and your digital technologies, solving all problems. 😉

    I can’t believe I just used an emoticon in a post. I feel unclean.

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