Building A Community Of Writers: A Reflection On The Writing Process

I have been teaching for 20+ years, and until this past year obtained the same results in my students’ writing:  stories or essays most fat with errors ranging from spelling and grammar to thinly outlined ideas and skeletonized or faulty organization.  As a reflective teacher, I ended each year with the promise that I would do something different the following year, particularly developing better procedures to encourage students to revise their written work and that of their peers.  I blamed the students for their lack of attention or willingness to revise.  Adding to all of this was the students’ belief that an assignment was finished when a name and date were written on a final copy, many almost mirror images of the original.  Understandably, every year my students made marginal improvements in their writing.

Unfortunately, I contributed to my students’ pushback to make significant changes to their writing.   I collected their work and set about the task of correcting all their mistakes.  Albeit an honest attempt to assist the students to see where they had the greatest room for improvement, I marked their errors leaving them nothing to do but to review the corrections, record the 6-Traits grade in their “Completed Assignments” list, and file the scratched up text in their portfolio.  Even though the writing they created should have guaranteed greater improvements due to the sheer amount they produced, the instruction I provided lacked the foundation and language necessary to build a community of writers able to employ the necessary writing processes.  I continued to create a nominally effective writing class.

Being a reflective teacher, I naturally provided a student reflection piece to my instruction.  I created revision checklists, conducting short ‘lectures’ of what to do with them.  The checklists included stems that asked, Have you revised?, Have you edited?, What did you revise?, and of course the accountability component of Write the name of the person who revised or edited your paper.  As my teaching experience progressed, I added modeling to my lesson plan. I picked a couple of compliant students and contrived a writing workshop session.    It helped a little, and I felt better about my instruction.  Yet my students’ writing habits were in effect static.

As a rule, I made a least one revision to the checklist format each year, all the while thinking that I had made it better.  Yet last year, during the planning stage of my Teaching Demo during my ISI experience with The Southern Arizona Writing Project, a review of my most recent checklist and ensuing discussions identified the root of my students’ confusion and ‘willingness’ to use it.  The tool was too prescriptive, hence the rationale for haphazard results.  Review of student work revealed most changes to my students’ texts were in the area of grammatical or lexical adjustments.   Ideas and organization were rarely developed further, if at all.   The challenge for me then became to rectify my approach to the Writing Process assuring that revision behaviors lead the way and editing brought up the rear.

The introduction of the Writing Protocol from The National Writing Project transformed my instruction.  It built in fidelity with a research based script for its implementation. The power the shared language had on the dynamics and efficacy of my instruction was immediate.  Introducing students to the language of Bless, Address, and Press and front loading them with simple phrases such as, “I like how you….” or “I want to know more about…” provided a foundation to assure that my students could begin to provide feedback to each other immediately.   The protocol left me free to listen to students’ writing giving me the ability to provide on the spot feedback rather than viewing a hard copy submitted at the end of the class.  It alleviated the temptation for me to “mark it up.”  Additionally, the protocol set up the critical modeling component of a well-rounded lesson for my students.

Having the opportunity to write about what they wanted was crucial in the early weeks of developing the community’s culture.   Consequently, students’ writing was of high interest to their peers.  Students were actively engaged in listening from the beginning.  The community of writers developed and gained momentum even as students were required to write more difficult formats, such as persuasive and argumentative texts.  Because of the modeling and their peers’ assistance, students learned to find their own voices and vocabulary for feedback.  Moreover, they were able to critique their own writing as they shared in their writing groups.  Even during Author’s Chair many students were able to make notes for revision as they read their work.

Reviewing the myriad videos and photos taken throughout the year, I liken the community of writers I facilitated to the life cycle of the butterfly.  They were eggs when they entered the classroom door, feeding on the time devoted to writing and talking about their interests and what they had written.  They broke through their shells as they applied the Writing Protocol practices, modeling and hanging on to procedures and adding to the layers of a shared language.  By the last part of the year my students had broken free of their chrysalis’ exploring language for its various purposes.  They flew in various directions exploring different content and formats, but they remained focused on the need and desire to search out the nectar of feedback from each other.  It was an amazing and productive year, the best for me, so far.  I am excited for new eggs in the fall.