The Hardest Part of (Teaching) Writing

As I wade into writing instruction in my high school classroom, I reflect on the simple truth that teaching writing is hard to do because writing well is hard to do.

I’ve always loved writing. However, I do not always enjoy teaching writing. In fact, I find it the most challenging part of my job as an English teacher.

As I’ve slogged through writing units with both my sophomores and my seniors this past week, I had an epiphany about this. Teaching writing is hard to do because writing well is hard to do.

Teaching writing is hard to do because writing well is hard to do.

I know, right? Not that mind-blowing a realization.  But the more I think about it, the more I realize that this idea has huge implications on my practice as a teacher.

So let’s break this down: Why is writing so difficult? And how can we help students with the process so that we can all feel successful at the end of a big writing assignment?

When I asked my 4th hour seniors what the hardest part of writing is for them, they enthusiastically yelled out a list. According to them, these are the first struggles that came to mind:

  • Starting
  • Organizing ideas
  • Staying on topic
  • Understanding what is being asked of them
  • Maintaining stamina
  • Applying the “rules” of writing to their ideas
  • Finding inspiration for things write about

Some of these things ring true to my own writing process. I also have a hard time starting, knowing what to write about and having the stamina to finish my tasks. These are things for which I can model strategies and provide encouragement, mainly in the form of time and opportunity.

However, some of these things are require me to reflect on and revise my instructional practice to support student success.

For example, “understanding what is being asked of them” and “staying on topic” are both struggles that require me to have clear objectives for our writing tasks. If my prompts aren’t clear, then it will be difficult for students to feel confident in their process.

More importantly, though, I’m realizing that I need to be mindful of the organic nature of writing and provide more opportunities for my students to be self-guided in their practice.

If students are only ever asked to write to a prompt or about something that a teacher suggests is important to write about, then they will never acquire the skills to start, organize, and craft meaningful text about things that have meaning to them. And that would be a terrible thing.

So how will I move forward?

Even though I made the rookie mistake of assigning major pieces in both my classes this week (120 essays coming in at the same time is giving me night sweats), I have some ideas that I hope to implement as we draft and revise in class over the next few weeks.

First, I plan to provide lots of class time for the process. Then I plan to do mini-lessons on elements of style and the “rules” of writing that often derail their efforts. Finally, I plan to have students draft their work in Google docs so that they can share chunks of their work with me along the way so I can provide feedback in the drafting process rather than at the end when my feedback isn’t as valuable.

Most importantly, though, I plan to be more transparent about my identity and process as a writer. It is so important for us to engage in the learning process with our students so they can see that it is normal to struggle. If they see that writing is hard for everyone, I hope that they will be willing to struggle—and succeed—with me. 

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