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.
As I write this, over 400,000 people around the world are in their eighth hour of the 2016 National Novel Writing Month contest.
For those unfamiliar, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo if you’re into the whole brevity thing) is a month-long exercise in near-manic writing: to “win” (a distinction that comes with no prize other than a printable certificate from the official website) a participant must craft a novel of at least 50,000 words during November. Many ideas that started as NaNoWriMo projects have turned into award-winning novels, including Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, and Wool by Hugh Howey. If my onboard Mac calculator is to be believed, this works out to exactly 1,666.66 words per day, an amount that is ominously, and awesomely, metal.
I first found out about this competition seven or eight years ago through that student. You know the one I’m talking about: violently large book in hand at all times, at least one item of Dr. Who-themed clothing, fervent fan-fiction aficionado, Edward Cullen-acolyte, etc. As a relatively new English teacher at the time, I assumed that NaNo’s appeal would forever be limited to a student like her: intrinsically-motivated, recreational readers and writers willing to stay up all night for the warm fuzzies of creating a fictional world in which to dwell, even for a moment.
And so it remained. Over the years, I had a student attempt the competition once in awhile; on a rare occasion, I heard of a student winning (reaching 50k words), but these were rare deviations from the norm.
But then, in 2015, twenty-five students attempted the challenge. Twenty-one students won. They printed their certificates and carried them with pride. They smiled as their picture was taken for the local newspaper. They began revising, revisiting, and reimagining their novels.
This year, sixty of my students are attempting the competition.
How did this happen?
A great deal has been written about the benefits of cultivating intrinsic, or internal, motivation in the classroom. Excellent books such as Drive by Daniel Pink celebrate the merits of pursuing goals not solely due to a compensatory reward but rather because they engender inner purpose. Purpose (along with its contextual brethren “meaning”, “worth”, and “calling”) is one of those words that just feels right. Of course, we’d all love to, at least in theory, follow a course that kindles our inner-selves.
We, as conscious and empathetic educators, attempt to translate this to the school environment. “Don’t read this poem because there’s a grade attached” we suggest, “read it because poetry is the wellspring of the lyrical heart.” (I’m not quite sure what that means, either, but it certainly sounds like something I would have said…) We divorce our texts, discussions, assignments, and curricular units from “arbitrary, artificial” grades to emphasize the timelessness of artistic qualia. We read dramatically, tear up, and sigh audibly over particularly breathtaking metaphors. We do this, and bless our naive hearts, we absolutely mean it.
And then one of two things happens:
Intrinsic motivation is important—essential, in fact, to any sort of long-term appreciation, pride, growth, and satisfaction—but the way we are encouraging it in the classroom often does more harm than good, because our classrooms (in all but the rarest of exceptions) operate within a transactional, extrinsically-focused system.
We can blissfully wax poetic about following the music of one’s heart all period long; students are still constantly reminded, in both explicit and implicit ways, that they are being externally quantified, ranked, and evaluated.
The good news?
We can use this potentially defeating awareness to tangentially foster internal validation in our students: the extrinsic motivator as a crowbar to crack open the door of genuine, intrinsic appreciation.
My class follows an open-curriculum, skill-based grading model. One set of skills, worth approximately ten percent of the year’s grade, focuses on narrative and creative writing. Last year, I sensed an opening...
I wielded the extrinsic crowbar: after introducing the concept of National Novel Writing Month, I mentioned that any student who attempted, and successfully completed, the competition would automatically receive full credit (“mastery”) on their five narrative writing standards. They were also given the freedom to work on their novels in class every day throughout the month.
“And remember,” I prodded further, “your novel is going to be atrocious; that’s the point! High-speed writing. Smoke coming off the keyboard. Don’t hit delete. Quantity over quality. That sort of stuff.”
“So...we just write a bad novel...and we get the points?” A student cautiously inquired.
“Absolutely! Well, don’t try to write a bad novel. Just don’t dwell on the quality as you’re writing.”
“And it can be about anything?”
These are always dangerous questions. “Yes! Well, no. Not anything. You know the things you can’t write about...I mean…” I could feel the sales-pitch slipping away from me.
Little did I know the wheels were already in motion. Students verbally shared novel ideas all period, gaining enthusiasm as the conversations expanded. The fear of wasted time or compromised grades had been assuaged. Before the end of the day, a dozen students told me they had signed up.
To drive the point home, the next day, I had the aforementioned student who had previously won the competition come into class and guest-lecture on her experience with NaNoWriMo. By greasing the wheels with the extrinsic reward, I sensed that my students were far more receptive to her pitch than they normally would have been; they viewed this student not as an “other” but as someone who they could aspire to emulate, given the structural support and extrinsic compensation.
As Daniel Pink writes in Drive (and in his wildly popular TEDtalk on the same topic) “the best way to use money as a motivator is to take the issue of money off the table.” Students’ “money” is the grade; by taking any grade concerns off the table by fairly compensating them for their efforts, these students were free to challenge themselves in ways they hadn’t imagined possible. They also attempted something they would most likely not have even started had there still been a lingering concern that their involvement would negatively affect their grades. By “crowbarring” extrinsic compensation into an inherently intrinsic challenge, students are given the agency to take an authentic, and rewarding, risk.
Long after the grade has been forgotten, those students will be able to say that once, during one crazy November, they wrote a novel. At the end of this month, I hope sixty more of my students will be able to join them.
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.
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