I teach students how to write. I do not make them writers.
There is a difference.
I have taught the writing process for over twenty years. I have taught students at different grade levels how to write for a specific audience in a specific format for a particular purpose. For example:
- Write a letter to your principal asking for an extra 15 minutes of recess. (persuasive letter)
- Research Shakespeare’s use of biblical imagery in Hamlet. (literary analysis)
- Imagine you are a citizen of the ancient city state of Sparta. What would a typical day be like? (narrative)
I know how to teach students to incorporate evidence in their writing. I have lessons on how to find the best evidence, and I have lessons on how to use a “stem sentence” to incorporate their evidence. I have lessons on how students should cite their evidence.
I can teach students how to use order in establishing a position in an argument, how to expand their ideas in analysis, and how to use sequence in telling a story.
I can teach students how to use a “formula” approach if they get stuck by having them:
- Start with a question, a quote, a definition, or example;
- Write a thesis with three points and then develop each of these points into paragraphs;
- Restate their best idea in the conclusion.
I teach the writing process: draft, edit, review, revise, (repeat), polish, and publish.
After all these lessons, I am confident that my students can write better.
I am not sure they are writers.
This past week, I went to hear the writer Dani Shapiro (Still Writing, Devotion: A Memoir) talk about her creative process as a writer. I thought I might hear some new ideas or inspiration that could help me teach my students to become writers.
Ms. Shapiro was composed as she ruined any notion that I could offer my students more than I already did in class. She was gracious as she crushed my hopes for easy solutions. I scrambled taking notes, but fortunately, what she said that night is posted on her blog:
Are there steps that lead the writer to the page? Steps that we can take, teetering one after the next, that will somehow get us into that longed-for state of the page rising up, the world receding?
I’m sorry to say that after all my musing I was unable to come up with a game plan, for myself or anyone else. Honestly, I never really thought I would, because every writer’s path to the page is unique and fraught in its own special way.
As she spoke, the issues I had with Michael, a student I had in class this year, came to mind.
All year, Michael was compelled to write, but not the writing I required. He would hang around after class asking me to “quick read” a story. (Note: they were very dark short stories). After an assignment, he would ask me what was my favorite part of an essay he had handed in. Before I could speak, he would read aloud his favorite line from that essay.
He took umbrage when I made a critical comment. He could not write on demand. He dawdled with all sorts of technology while others scratched out a timed essay. He hated turning in his incomplete work complaining “I didn’t get to say what I wanted” or “I just couldn’t get started.”
After class, I would correct the essays. Michael’s papers could begin like any other student’s paper. Pronoun antecedent issues. Capitalization problems. Missing apostrophes. I would write the usual blunt comments,”Get to the point!” in the margins. But I learned to look for that sentence, usually somewhere about 2/3 through his essay, for that sentence….and I would have to stop.
Everything Michael wrote before that sentence in an essay was in need of revision, but everything after that sentence in the essay was different, shaded…altered. He could write something that silenced the teacher voice in my head.
“I knew that was good,” he would say looking for my approval.
“Yes,” I would agree, “that was very good. I have no suggestions.”
That would please him, until the next writing assignment he would be forced to write.
As Shapiro states, there are no prescribed steps I can devise to “lead the writer to the page.” She could not help me develop a game plan to get my students “into that longed-for state of the page rising up, the world receding,” just as there was no game plan that made Michael a writer. I know he is on a unique path, and I know I did not teach him this path.
His path illustrates the difference, a difference I recognize between my teaching writing and my teaching a writer.