There has been a great deal of discussion regarding personal writing on the Writing Program Administrators discussion list (WPA-L) and combining that with a recent discussion of literacy narratives by the Morehead Writing Project Professional Learning Community and planning National Day On Writing activities for Morehead State University and Eastern Kentucky and my other professional duties I have been thinking a lot about the goals that we (teachers and program administrators) have for our students.
My number one goal is to help my students become more literate and better critical thinkers. As a result of my new job (College Readiness Coordinator at Morehead State University) I have had to shift from my previous number one goal which was to help my students become (better) writers. I put “better” in parenthesis and quotations because for many of my students it is not about becoming better – we first have to work together to help them believe that they are writers before we can begin to work on the better part. I do believe strongly that my writing workshop and National Writing Project methods can support that transformation to writer (and have the dissertation to back it up) but sometimes it takes more than 16 weeks to address the scar tissue left by more than a dozen years of education.
As Pat Schneider notes in “Writing Alone and With Others,” “Not being able to write is a learned disability. It is almost always the result of scar tissue, of disbelieve in yourself accumulated as a result of unhelpful responses to your writing.” She explains, and I agree, that writing apprehension is often the result of the bruising that results from “academic grading systems and hostile teacher responses.” Even worse, too often the peer review systems we implement in our classrooms mimic these same bruising, hostile systems because students believe that is how writing should be evaluated. How would they know differently? Much of my professional work in recent years has been to create a writing classroom to counteract my students’ previous experience with academic writing. This has also been behind many of my programming decisions as the director of the Morehead Writing Project including starting a Writing Studio (Why Writing Studio?) and abandoning professional development to focus on the writer not the teaching of writing (We Don’t Deliver PD Anymore).
Now my job requires me to work at a much larger scale. I am responsible for hundreds of students rather than dozens and I am responsible for their literacy development, reading as well as writing, and overall college readiness. I’ve never ignored reading, after all it is closely tied with writing, and have always assigned reading to support and feed the writing and discussion in my classes, but now I am thinking about it much more than before. In addition, I need develop their critical thinking skills more than before. Helping students develop and refine their literacy and critical thinking is a large challenge but reading, writing, and thinking are connected at so many levels that it is easy to come up with assignments and projects that develop all three.
One of my favorite ways to meet all three goals is the literacy narrative. The literacy narrative is flexible enough to serve a number of purposes for any class and can provide a wonderful path for personal writing to become not only writing to learn but writing for a broader audience, but that is another blog post (see Traci Gardner’s Teaching Literacy Narratives if you want to learn why I am such a fan).
I am also a big fan of the reflection journal and class blog. What do these assignments all have in common? They help students develop both their literacy and critical thinking skills and as low-stakes writing assignments the focus is on the learning journey and not the finished product. I believe we do not give students enough opportunity simply to write without worrying about a polished, finished product, we do not give students enough opportunity to read and reflect on and share their thoughts about their reading, and we certainly do not provide enough opportunity for our students to be free range thinkers. Too often we create assignments and classes that box students in and set them up to follow a very restricted path. Then we complain when their writing is stilted and awkward, they do not read deeply, and they do not engage with the text in any meaningful way. Is it their fault that too much of their education has treated text in only superficial ways? Is it their fault that too often the only arguments they see and hear are superficial and mired in opinion rather than fact?
If we want our students to become readers, writers, and thinkers then we must not only encourage them in those endeavors but give them the room to explore and experiment. Don’t focus all your assignments and projects around the production of polished products. All too often I see too much emphasis on polished final products and not enough time spent on reading and writing to learn and to support thinking. Our students need more time spent on the journey, the process, of discovery and learning. The final product is important but it is not the most, or the only, important thing. Its purpose is to demonstrate, document, and give evidence of the journey. It should not be the destination.