We’ve all seen it: the student staring at the blank GoogleDoc on their laptop, or the empty lined paper in front of them, desperately willing the words to arrive. One of my former students put it best:
“That must be why they call it a cursor; it feels like every time it blinks on the screen it’s cursing at me.”
Granted, there are some students who just flat-out refuse to write; those students to whom the act of writing anything for school has already been equated directly with pain and suffering. We will talk about those students in due time. Today, I’d like to address the students who have been crippled by the need for “first draft perfection.”
First Draft Perfection Syndrome (FDPS) is chronic among “high performing” and “ambitious” high schoolers, those tracked early into gifted and accelerated programs, but can appear within any student population. The causes of this ailment are manifold, but can ultimately be traced back to one root: frequent exposure to "high-stakes" writing environments.
This approach, unfortunately, often clashes with the philosophical rhetoric we espouse regarding writing in general. “Writing is a process of continual refinement and improvement,” we say, “all the greats went through countless drafts...do you think Shakespeare just sat down and wrote Hamlet?!” The message that’s conveyed with this approach, however, is that fearless drafting is something that’s done out there; in here those rules don’t apply.
I want to be clear: locking students into permanent grades on their first attempt at writing is contrary to the nature of recursive, reflective practice; it discourages a respect for and love of writing in general.
This is not to say, of course, that first drafts can’t or shouldn’t be assessed; in fact, taking a student’s pulse via their first attempt at a piece of writing is an essential formative assessment approach. But to treat a first draft as the be-all and end-all of the writing process establishes a dangerous mentality: don’t fly too close to the sun, young Icarus, or you will get burned. This approach tacitly encourages “safe” writing, and as a result, students are deprived of opportunities to attempt more advanced writing techniques.
I am of the rather unpopular belief that the top ten percent of our student population stagnates, on average, as much or more so than the bottom ten percent. The reason we don’t notice is because the evidence for this is in many ways obfuscated by arbitrary “ceilings” placed on high-performing students through the “far left” column of traditional writing rubrics. In short, “honors-level” students learn early in their academic careers what constitutes “A-level” writing, and in turn perpetually write to that level, rarely venturing outside the safety of that assumed paradigm. The fact that these students continue to receive high grades on their writing speaks less to their growth than it does to their systemic conformity and survival instincts. Why attempt something new, they rightfully rationalize, when this safe approach has garnered them the grades they desire?
By presenting and reinforcing an initial attempt at a piece of writing as just that: the first, awkward step in a long process, we not only contextualize the role of a writer but emphasize the metacognitive aspects of recursive writing as well. This cannot be done in a grading model that treats first (or any) drafts as final submissions; nor can it be accomplished in a classroom environment that shuttles students from point to point regardless of individual proficiency. Failure is not solely the domain of “weak” students-- it must be destigmatized and presented as a necessary step on the path to any skill development.
In giving students the opportunity to reflect on just how imperfect their first drafts are, and eliminating the negative reinforcement (or conversely, the misleading grade inflation) of first attempts in general, we provide students with a safe environment for candid self-awareness, acknowledgement of skill-deficit, and focused goal-setting for future drafts. This approach also untethers teachers from the inherent guilt in, and avoidance of, grading first submissions for what they actually are instead of what they will do to a student’s average. By supporting “conscious drafting”, we both make our students more aware of the writing process and give ourselves the freedom to assess more authentically.
My Ten Suggestions for Encouraging “Conscious Drafting” in the ELA Classroom
If we truly want our students to view writing as a continual exercise in improvement, we owe them the opportunity to actually demonstrate that skill in an environment that supports their efforts, both philosophically and systemically.
Matt Morone (@MrMorone) is a high school English teacher, NCTE/CEL Member-at-Large & NJ state liaison, #CELchat organizer, faculty advisor to Outside/In literary magazine, 2016 Princeton Distinguished Secondary Teacher of the Year, constant reader, novice blogger, avid music fan, and sandwich aficionado.
Ed Blog Friends
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.