Coffee, Books, Reflection
In this post I will be responding specifically to Donald Murray’s 1972 essay “Teaching Writing as a Process Not Product” found on pages 1-5 of the book The Essential Don Murray by Thomas Newkirk and Lisa C. Miller.
I’ve been reading a lot of articles by Donald Murray lately and the theme that keeps coming up is writing as process, not product. In the world of education, and I fear in a world of common core standards and formative assessments, writing is too often seen as a means to an end — as in if I write this well, I will get a good grade. Too often I find my students only willing to adopt a “one & done” mindset when it comes to writing. I encourage Murray’s vision of prewriting as a method of percilating, and I do believe students spend at least 85% of their designated writing time in this stage. I find myself doing this — especially when it comes to writing about books on my book blog. I read the book, toss the ideas around in my mind for a few days, take a few notes in my notebook, and then begin to respond to the book in paragraphs. The difference between myself and my students, however, lies in the next step: before hitting “publish” on anything I go back and reread, rework, and rewrite parts of my writing. Too often I feel my students get stuck before the “re” portion of writing. The one & done mentality so prevalent among high school students leads to poor writing and poor attitudes toward writing. I feel pain in my teacher-heart every time I read something from a brilliant student that is riddled with errors and poorly strung ideas. I know the brilliance is in there, but my students don’t take the time to polish the rock of the idea until it shines like the gem that it is.
I’ve fought this problem for the past three years and I’m struggling to find the way to bring my students the joy of revision. I know I didn’t find it in high school — only in college, once someone else had already validated my writing as quality. I often meditate back to my high school self (bright & lazy!) to help me understand my high school students. I worked hard on things I cared for, worked hard enough to get by on things I didn’t, but I always had a second set of eyes on my paper before I turned it in. I won’t claim to not make mistakes (heck, my principal will be the first to point out that I misspell things on my whiteboard fairly often — sometimes the pen is faster than the brain!), but I tried–and still try–to catch those mistakes before they go out to the larger public. What I’m looking for is a way to show my students they should care about their final drafts the way they care about their facebook status. After all, both are projecting an image of themselves into the world.
One way I’ve started to get my students to think about the writing process, as opposed to the writing marathon word-vomit, is to use journals. My senior students were my pilot project for this endeavor and they used it for a bit of prewriting, but seemed to forget it existed when they went to draft their papers. I often found a gem of an idea in their writer’s notebooks that did not make it into their paper and was disappointed when they couldn’t explain why it didn’t make it to their paper.
In Murray’s article, he advocates for bringing life to writing. He points out that most teachers are taught to autopsy writing by analyzing literature and then told to go “teach” good writing. I know that I’m not a good writer on the first try; often I’m only an average writer by the third try. This can be discouraging for our students, so as a teacher it’s our goal to breathe life into writing when participating in that act with our students.Murray reminds teachers that “we have to be patient and wait, and wait, and wait. The suspense in the beginning of a writing course is agonizing for the teacher, but if we break first, if we do the prewriting for our students, they will not learn the largest part of the writing process” (3). I’ve found this to be a struggle in my classroom as well. My students want to be spoon-fed questions for analysis and act like lost puppies when I do not outline for them what I’d like them to say about the topic. Giving them an outline, however, results in reading the same paper 25 times. Outside of taking my class, I doubt all of my students have one thing in total common with each other, so I know that they do not all have the same opinion when it comes to a topic. My goal as a teacher this year is to listen to Murray’s advice and shut up and let all 25 of my students say what they want to say in writing, not regurgitate what they think I want them to say.
The views on this blog are mine alone and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.
Kari teaches English I to 9th graders (!) and other electives in rural Iowa. Her husband is also an English teacher, and their friends have sworn to never help them move again because "even libraries don't have that many books."