• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you’re going to be asked to leave.

Title

What We Learn When Our Writing 'Fails'

How can we incentivize students to take writing risks, and give them an escape when they get in over their heads?

June 28, 2018
 
 

Yesterday I had a blog post crash and burn just as I thought I was bringing it in for a landing.

Notions that barely get off the ground before proving to be not post-worthy are pretty common. For every five published posts, I’ve probably started two others that didn’t get much past a couple of paragraphs.

But this one was already over 1,200 words, wrapping up towards a conclusion after which I’d go looking for places to pare back to a more reasonable length, when I realized it just wasn’t working, I’d be embarrassed if I put it into the world in anything like its present form, and I’d be better off scrapping it and starting over.

It happens.

I had a couple of lines I liked that I knew I wanted to work in: “Education is too important to be left exclusively to economists,” and “Students must be viewed as more than little bundles of potential capital.” Those give a sense of the point I was trying to work towards.

I wanted to tie those ideas to the recently released Rand Corporation report about the Gates Foundation’s failed Effective Teacher Initiative, which had me working backwards to the famous study by Raj Chetty (et al.) arguing that Value-Added Modeling (VAM) could predict which teachers would ultimately boost student incomes, which bopped me over to President Obama’s 2012 State of the Union where he favorably cited Chetty’s research, which provided an initial impetus for the Gates Foundation approach to teacher evaluation, which sent me back to questioning the rationale for thinking that the best approach to improving teachers was to focus on weeding out the small percentage of bad ones, which got me back on how performance on standardized tests (the basis for Chetty’s VAM) was a lousy proxy for learning…

...and you’re probably getting a good sense for why the thing disintegrated right before my eyes. It was all too much.

Thing is, in the process of trying to make this puppy fly, but then seeing it nosedive into the ground, I learned a lot. I know much more about Value-Added Modeling. I have a better understanding of the Gates Foundation teacher evaluation approach, both why they might have believed something like this could work, as well as what I think are some obvious red flags that should’ve signaled they were destined for failure to begin with.

I’m smarter on this stuff than I was before. I don’t have a blog post to publish, but them’s the breaks sometimes.

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I believe in writing as a process of discovery, something I’ve tried to put central in the classroom.

I have a number of writing mantras for students on this front:

  • Writing is a way to figure out what you know, but didn’t yet know how to say.
  • You should know something at the end of writing the essay that you didn’t know at the beginning.
  • If you haven’t been surprised during the writing process, you’re probably not done.

I have more, but they all circle essentially the same idea, that the kind of thinking writing requires stands a pretty good chance of reorienting one’s knowledge, beliefs, and even on occasion, deeper things like values. Writing is a great way to teach oneself something new, which may in turn be something new for the audience.

That much of the writing we ask students to do – particularly prior to college – values conformity and compliance rather than curiosity and discovery is a real problem in my book. It’s one of the things that keeps students from accomplishing as much as we’d wish once they’re in college. It’s difficult to shift from an attitude of, “Show me how much you’ve retained of what you’ve been told,” to “Show me something that others haven’t thought of in precisely this way before.”

I tell students that as writers they should view themselves as “unique intelligences,” that is if they go into the writing process aiming for discovery, because there is no one else in the world who has had their particular set of experiences, they will likely create something new, something worth hearing.

You should see the looks on the students’ faces when they achieve this. It is probably the thing I miss most about teaching. In conferences I’d ask “what have you learned?” and students could tell me. What is the goal of all this business if not this?

But sometimes, reasonably often in fact, what they’ve learned doesn’t coalesce into a piece of writing that works. Sometimes they experience exactly what happened to me with yesterday’s blog post, more is bitten off than can be successfully chewed within the time frame available for gnawing.

There’s a conundrum here. For students to learn as much as possible from a particular assignment, it’s best if they’re operating at the fringes of their own abilities and understanding. I want them to imagine a reach that is likely beyond their grasp.

On the other hand, the structure of school often punishes those noble attempts. It’s much better to play it safe, and indeed, if you talk to students, you’ll find how many of them are coolly calculating about what kind of effort is required to maximize outcomes as defined by grades, rather than considering how much they “learned.”[1]

When deadlines come, something must be cobbled together, no matter what. I think this sometimes prevents students from maximizing their learning.

All of this had me thinking about the potential to institute something I’m going to call the “parachute clause.”

The parachute clause would come into play when a student is working on a piece of writing and they realize – as I did with this blog post – that the thing just isn’t going to work. The nose of the plane points to the ground, the altimeter starts spinning so fast it looks like something out of a cartoon, and left with no choice, the student jumps free, pulling the ripcord on a parachute to get to the ground safely.

In practical terms, I envision the student turning in the “failed” piece of writing along with a reflection of what they think went wrong, combined with a discussion of what they learned in the process of creating this “failure.” Under the right circumstances, the students could even share this writing with the class as we collaborate on approaches which may resurrect the idea and give it new life.

Rather than forcing students to flog an essay that’s doomed to crash, why not let them step back, reflect, and take ownership of what they have experienced and learned in the process?

It makes sense in my head, anyway.

Since I don’t have access to a classroom or students anymore, maybe someone can pick up the mantle, and let me know if it works.

 

[1] So many students I’ve worked with in first-year writing courses have internalized a view where a piece of writing is almost explicitly a kind of bluff meant to fool a reader into believing the writer knows something. They very much see it as a game.

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