Do you personally enjoy writing? Do you find it more difficult than speaking, reading, or listening? I’m a writer at heart, and even I would answer yes.
That realization has been at the heart of my exploration of how to teach and encourage writing.
Recently, I read an article in The Reading Teacher titled “Inquiry about Learning and Learners: Why do we find writing so hard? Using journals to inquire into our teaching.” The article was about teachers struggling to reflect in journals about their own teaching. Instead, teachers found study group sessions in which they shared perspectives on what was happening in their classrooms or read and discussed articles on teaching more valuable. They enjoyed journaling about their teaching experience least even though they actually found the reflection process helpful:
“But despite the fact that two thirds of us did not like journal writing and did not want to continue, the writing we did in journals was much more reflective than the talk that took place during study group.” They value group study, but recognize that writing provides greater reflection.
What a fascinating paradox!
The researchers in the group found that, among the problems that the teachers identified with journal writing, two stood out and “seemed to be more significant in explaining why writing was so hard for most of us”:
- having prior difficulty with journal writing
- writing as a stressful, difficult endeavor
Wow, that sounds like what many of my students experience; yet, these were teachers – some of them writing teachers!
The researchers recognized that, unlike social, collaborative study groups where teachers build upon each other’s ideas, writing is an individualistic activity. The writer is alone without the richly supportive and interactive environment of the group. Journal writing (blogging essentially) became for many teachers “emotionally troublesome and even threatening.”
If teachers are using that language, what might some of our reluctant students be experiencing?!
Fortunately, the researchers (teachers themselves, remember) offer some strategies that I believe would work equally well with students struggling to write.
- In study group sessions, begin with everyone writing or sketching before talking. Allow individuals to read what they’ve written so that writing becomes a communal activity.
- Refer to journaling as process, not product. Place the emphasis on journaling as ongoing inquiry. As the researchers underscored, “School teaches us that we write to display what we know, not to discover new ideas … good thinkers need to overcome the lessons they learned in school.” Good thinkers – meaning teachers, students, everyone – need to view writing just like thinking and speaking. We continually express, reconsider, revise, consume new information, and express again. That’s the thinking, speaking, and WRITING process. Journaling or blogging can exist anywhere in the spectrum of that process.
- The key is to look at journaling as first-draft thinking and expressions of tentative understanding. We need to move away from “doing it right the first time” or “writing as test” mentality. Writing needs to be part of the exploration process too.
I plan to have this understanding of writing as the focus of my presentation, “The New Literacy,” at The Martin Institute in two weeks. I’m just getting some of my “first draft” ideas on paper.