Fall: writing and revision, how good it is!

I've been so interested in various discussions going on here at Fireside that I have been lax about blogging - it's also been the very busiest week of the semester for me, because ALL the students, with just a couple of exceptions, now have their Storybook websites up; here's Myth-Folklore, the biggest of the three classes - just look at all those awesome project topics!

Now I am making my way through the first drafts of their Introductions which they will revise and add to the websites next week, although a few folks already have their Introductions online.

Working through the Introductions is hard work because, to be honest, most of them are not very good the first time around. But rather than get depressed about the fact that most of these college seniors are completely stymied by the task of writing something even a little bit analytical (i.e. explaining the project they have chosen), I just focus on the GOOD thing here, which is the revision process built into the project.

When I first started teaching this class, fresh out of graduate school, I assumed - very very wrongly - that college seniors would know the basics of writing. Well, I quickly found out that this was not the case: many of my students have sentence-level problems (spelling, grammar, punctuation problems galore), almost all of them have paragraph-level problems (they don't know how to focus, and their sense of transition from sentence to sentence and paragraph to paragraph is non-existent), and - most of all - they have almost no rhetorical sense, no notion of how to really reach out to their audience.

I quickly realized that I had to make revision a part of every writing assignment, so now, after the three weeks of brainstorming, the next twelve weeks of the semester consist of alternating weeks of writing and revision, writing and revision, with every single page of the Storybook - the introduction, the four stories, the final version of the introduction - part of that writing/revision cycle.

Much to my surprise and delight, the decision I made to assist the struggling students has turned out to make the course better for EVERYBODY - it's like the way curb cuts in sidewalks for people in wheelchairs turn out to benefit everybody, not just the people in wheelchairs. Some people might call it dumbing down the course, but my feeling is just the opposite: building revision into the writing cycle like this makes EVERYBODY a better writer. Instead of treating revision as something punitive, it is now a natural part of the process. No one has perfect writing, and this revision cycle allows me to encourage every single student - including the very best students - to improve their writing.

Admittedly, the students who do a great job the first time around don't have to spend a lot of time in the revision weeks - so that is their reward. They look forward to the revision weeks as a lighter work load - but my feeling is that they have earned that, and I am glad if they get that sense of a positive boost from being good writers already. Some people spend hours and hours crafting their writing assignments for this class because they are so in love with their topics - and all the effort they put into that shows up very clearly. For the revisions, they are often just working on a couple of paragraph transitions or maybe trying to find the perfect opening sentence to get things going.

For the students who struggle with their writing, it is just the opposite. They are so unable to manage their own writing experience that on the first go-round they turn something in to me that takes them not much time to write, simply because they don't know how to push themselves to do more. So: I push! They get back voluminous comments from me about all aspects of their writing, and that gives them lots of "stimuli" to work from. So, appropriately stimulated, they spend MUCH more time in the revision weeks in their writing. For those students, the revision weeks are the weeks involving hard work, since they finally have something to wrap their brains around, some questions and comments that can really help them do what they really need to be doing to begin with: imagining the effect their writing has as it reaches an audience.

I could go on and on about this, but I'll just close on these two notes: most college writing experiences are rendered useless by the lack of revision and the lack of a real audience. I am not the real audience these students are writing for in my class: they are writing for each other, which is great! Many of them, especially the struggling students, are not motivated to write well for me, but they are extremely motivated to write well to impress their peers. By using the Internet, I am able to promote revision naturally (no trees were killed in the making of this webpage!) and also to create a REAL audience of peers for them to write for.

So, the whole thing is a bit exhausting, but in a good way. I spend about 40 hours per week, every week, working with students on their writing. I cannot really imagine anything more valuable I could be doing as a teacher. :-)

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Comment by Ian Carmichael on September 30, 2008 at 3:59am
Nor me, Laura.
Keep it up!!

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