As educators who teach writing, we’ve all heard the moans and groans from our students. They don’t want to write because they dislike it and feel self-conscious. They’ve stored years’ worth of negative feelings and experiences about writing, and all that baggage travels with them into our classrooms, dragging them down and souring their dispositions before we’ve even gotten started.
How do we change these attitudes and instill confidence in our students? How can we give them the push they need to give writing a chance, setting the stage to allow themselves to flourish? Here are five quick tips to start using in your classroom today.
1. Provide Autonomy with Every Writing Assignment
While there are certainly times when we want to direct and guide our students towards or away from certain subjects depending on the units we teach, there’s always room for at least some choice. I know that I wouldn’t want to write about a topic I didn’t like, and I love writing. Therefore, imagine how constricting it is for our reluctant writers to be saddled with prompts in which they have no interest. Why not let the students pick their topics?
With every assignment, I either provide at least five writing prompts or allow students to have complete choice over their topics. For example, though everyone will write a descriptive essay and (hopefully) strive to meet the same learning objectives, students have free reign on subject matter. While this inevitably means I’ll end up reading a dozen or more descriptive essays on football games, letting students choose their focus unlocks their ability to find something about which they can express passion.
2. Give Students Access to Resources
As much as I hope that students hang on my every word during class and take meticulous notes, I’m a realist who knows this isn’t true of most of my struggling writers. Their notes will contain gaps, and/or they may fail to remember important pieces of information to unlock the puzzle of what comprises, for example, a compare/contrast essay. Therefore, I use my institution’s learning management system to post supplementary resources such as rubrics and example papers so they have help at home when they’re stuck. I remind students to check this for assistance, as reinforcing the assignment’s requirements and providing models of my expectations increases the likelihood that they will have the confidence to complete the assignment.
3. Explain that Rough Drafts Can Be Really Rough
How many times have you seen a student pause in her writing after composing a half page only to crumple it up? “I messed up,” the student will say upon seeing my pained expression, and she’ll start the whole process over…
A rough draft doesn’t need to be perfect; it just needs to be done. When I model writing to students, I inevitably write sentences that need work. Sometimes I pause and rethink what I wanted to write, revising then and there, while other times I explain that it’s OK to make mistakes or have unfinished or inarticulate thoughts, as I can return to the draft later. I want students to avoid the blank page syndrome; when they’re intent on perfection, they often freeze, unable to get past the bump. My advice is to drive right through it. If their words are on the page and their ideas are out in the open, however inexpertly, they have accomplished something. Granted, this rough, rough draft is not what I tell them to bring to their peer review session, as a completely unpolished draft will fail to elicit enough specific feedback, but finishing this early draft will reinforce that they can do it.
4. Frame your Feedback before Handing Back Papers
Criticism can be tough for students to handle even when it’s constructive and delivered with the best of intentions. Since many of our students have negative perceptions of themselves as writers, they’re extremely sensitive and worried that their writing is wrong. We want our comments to help our students; otherwise, we wouldn’t spend all those hours writing them. How can we help our students understand that we aren’t trying to rip them to shreds?
Besides streamlining my written comments to focus on areas for improvement, versus simply correction, I also orally remind my students that I’m not judging them as writers or as people; my comments are meant to help them grow, and I’m giving them each specific advice on how they can do so. I tell them that my written words, in conjunction with their own, are to be seen as a conversation about their writing. I have found this method extremely effective, and many of my students have commented on my helpful feedback in their evaluations.
5. Build in Second Chances
While no one wants to add to our already towering stacks of grading, working with reluctant writers means that essays should never stop after the first drafts; students need to receive feedback and actually act upon it to improve their writing. Most of us already provide class time for peer review sessions or writers’ workshops; here, students receive helpful suggestions for revision, and they are encouraged to make changes before submitting their creations to the mercy of our red (or green or purple) pens. But what about after that?
I won’t let students submit every essay multiple times; I might as well handcuff myself to my desk. However, I require all students to go through another round of revision for one essay of their choice and grade it again. Not only does it provide a second chance, but it encourages them to really respond to the feedback I’ve already given. Since they know in advance that they’ll have this second chance, it takes away some of the fear and risk involved in submitting an essay in the first place.
Some of our students may never learn to love writing, but a few tweaks in our instruction can at least foster higher confidence and tolerance for it.