Idealism and the Teaching of Writing

I just finished my first week of the semester. Although in many ways I didn’t feel ready to go back to school, still, there’s something energizing, even hopeful, about the beginning of the semester.

In one class I’m teaching, I asked my students to do a writing self-assessment. As I read through the results in the space between my two classes, I was a little surprised and saddened. Although there were a number of students who had positive experiences with writing, there were a large number who didn’t. Many of the students talked about how they’d received negative feedback on their writing, which made them feel dumb . . . and which made the process of writing difficult and in some ways hopeless.

I understand, to some degree. The years writing my dissertation were often painful. I labored on drafts, but they never seemed quite good enough. My dissertation advisor worked to help me make a shift in my critical abilities–but it took time, effort, and a lot of struggle to make the shift. Now, I’m really glad about what I learned in this process, but I can’t say I have a positive or even pleasant relationship to certain kinds of writing.

When I read about my students’ difficulties with writing, I experienced a surge of idealism. I want to help my students develop a better relationship to writing. I want them to be able to list a number of skills and strategies that they feel competent at by the end of the semester. I want them to have fun with writing assignments, to take risks, and to be proud of the results. Since my students are future elementary school teachers, it feels even more important that I help them learn to both enjoy writing and feel like successful writers.

One thing I know about myself as a teacher is that I will always say something good about the writing they do. But I know that’s not enough–many students look at the grade and that’s all they see.

So far, my students have been fairly open with me, I think. I’ve been reading freewrites they did yesterday and I notice those whose expression isn’t very fluid. When I get to those students, I think about their self-assessments, their willingness to be honest with me about how they feel. I want that to continue–and I want to help my students recognize their strengths as writers. I know that I’ll succeed with some students and fail with others. And I know that at the end of the semester, I’ll likely have bittersweet moments assigning final grades.

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