I’ve been teaching students how to write for 12 years, but this week I had a realization that made me question the purpose of writing in school.
When I was in high school and later in college, my English classes focused primarily on reading novels and writing papers to demonstrate a strong understanding of the literature we had read, annotated and discussed as a class. The purpose of writing was assessment. Did we understand what we read? Were we able to identify strong textual evidence and analyze it? Did we demonstrate higher-order thinking in our writing?
I took this same philosophy and applied it to my own work with students. Like so many teachers, my own practice is, in many ways, grounded in my past experiences as a student. Even though I strive to continually grow, learn and improve as an educator, I sometimes don’t think to question the assumptions that are at the heart of my craft.
Two years ago I began flipping my writing instruction. I created short videos to replace the “mini-lessons” I had traditionally presented in class. I saw value in allowing students the opportunity to control the pace of their learning. As a teacher, I love having a resource I can point a student to if they are continuing to struggle with the structure of an argument body paragraph or how to write a thesis statement. In the past, I had to repeatedly explain these concepts. Flipping my writing instruction also creates more time in the classroom to actually write.
Last year, I wrote a blog about synchronous editing. I described a class period when I took my students to the computer lab part way through their essays to provide them with formative feedback. I opened every document and left extensive comments. In that blog, I commented on how miraculous it is that technology has given me a vehicle to collaborate in real time, meet students where they are at, and provide support during their writing. I’ve continued to provide synchronous edits in the computer lab at least once each time students write a process paper.
So what changed?
This week my students finished writing an essay on Shakespeare’s play, Othello. It is one of the most challenging pieces of reading we do all year. I knew my students would need support during the writing process. I planned time in class for them to write, so I could answer questions and lend support. Then I reserved the computer lab three days in a row and had students working on their papers as I synchronously edited them. I edited most of my students‘ Google documents 2 or 3 times before they actually “submitted” their essays.
As I walked away from the last round of edits exhausted but satisfied with both my effort and theirs, it hit me. My 9th and 10th grade students are still learning how to write. Many of my students come into my class without a strong foundation in writing. Most don’t have the skills they need to tackle the meaty essay prompts I present without serious support. So, why am I so focused on the product when I should be focusing on the process? The time I spend helping my students to edit and refine their writing as they write is exponentially more valuable for them than the final comments I leave on their essays.
My big realization is that writing shouldn’t be used as simply an assessment tool. Assigning an essay to be completed at home and collected to grade is a missed opportunity for everyone. The student misses out on valuable feedback and support as they write, and teachers collect enormous stacks of paper that must be graded outside of the school day. This old model can be a frustrating and exhausting experience for everyone involved.
Why not move writing back into the classroom? Doesn’t it make more sense to spend our time and energy providing feedback as students write, instead of waiting until papers are collected to spend hours editing them? We are fortunate enough to teach in a time when technology is making it easier than ever to collaborate on documents and provide instant feedback, so we can embrace the process!