Lesson plan. Lecture. Notes. Test. Rinse. Repeat.
We’ve all seen classrooms that operate like this. In fact, I’m sure that we’ve all been in classrooms that have operated like this. Mine wasn’t so different when I started teaching. I still vividly recall my first year: part of our drama 9 curriculum was to teach the history of drama. Wet behind the ears and grinning with the knowledge that I had a full-time job where most of my university cohort had only substitute teacher positions, I set to work.
I developed a series of riveting lectures on the history of drama, from old fertility rituals enacted to bring about fecundity in fallow soil, all the way to absurdist American drama of the late 20th century. I lectured, and some of my students wrote some of it down. Mostly they talked, and chatted with each other, and kept on interrupting me by telling me that what we were doing was boring. This made me alternatively furious and amused: furious that my authority was being questioned by a group of fourteen-year-olds, and amused because if they didn’t pay attention, they were screwed on the test.
In retrospect, the test results were hardly surprising.
When I was in high school, I questioned authority and tradition. To this day I still don’t know what differentiates a 70% essay from a 71% essay. What constitutes 1% improvement on a holistic assignment like essay writing? When I read essays by E.B. White or Gene Weingarten, I’m not thinking about giving their writings a percentage; I’m thinking about how much these two writers in particular move me, challenge me, evoke emotions within me that would otherwise lay dormant. This is the power of the written word, and too often, I find, teachers are content to ignore this power in favour of getting students to create that perfect – and often formulaic – essay.
But when I became a teacher, I taught as I had been taught, and the results weren’t exactly encouraging. In this post I want to share what I’ve done in the past year to move away from tradition and towards real, authentic writing: the development of a writing community instead of “English class.”
Most writing isn’t private. Most writers write because they have something to share with the world. Often, writing in school and university takes away this communal aspect and instead creates a narrow conduit between one reader and one writer. The writer is writing not because she wishes to create a magnificent new world in words, but because she’s been given an assignment and it’s due by Tuesday, damn it, so it needs to be done as quickly as possible because she’s got basketball practice for most of the week. After all, it’s only an assignment, right?
After seeing the results from these kinds of assignments, I took a step back to examine my beliefs about the process of writing. This is what I came up with: I reject the idea that teachers should teach writing by making it a private activity. I reject the idea that beautiful literature can be created in a timed environment. I reject the idea that students will become better writers by practicing formulaic essay styles over and over and over again, often in preparation for a standardised test at the end of the year.
With these beliefs in mind, I set out to create a class in which writing could be authentic instead of formulaic. Last year, I told my grade 12 students that they needed to complete five assignments in the semester: creative fiction, creative non-fiction, authorial comparison, persuasive essay, and thematic comparison, all of which were derived from my provincial program of studies. I gave very general requirements for each assignment (minimum word count, spelling and grammar needs to be checked, etc.) and told the class that there was no due dates for any of the assignments save the end of the course. The class was quiet, digesting this bit of information.
One of my students tentatively put up her hand. “Mr. Friesen, I think it would be better if we had due dates.” Other students agreed. They didn’t want the freedom of completing their assignments at their leisure because it meant that they had to be even more responsible for their time. If an essay is due on Monday, then it better get done on Monday (which any teacher knows means Sunday night). But five written assignments due five months from now? That was an entirely different dangling preposition, and at first it was hard for my students to wrap their brains around the idea.
My administrators were even more concerned. They cited specific students who “couldn’t” work under such circumstances. I told them point-blank that I knew that these students could do it (and desperately prayed that these students wouldn’t make liars of me).
The due dates weren’t my only innovation, however: the subjects of the written assignments themselves were also completely up to the students. They could choose to write a creative fiction piece that somehow echoed the theme or content of Gene Weingarten’s “Fatal Distraction”, or an authorial comparison of Kafka and Samsa, or a thematic essay describing similarities in Canadian short stories, or pretty much anything they damn well pleased. I encouraged them to take risks, and my students took me up on that challenge. (I’ve posted some of these works of writing, with their permission, on http://thefriesen.com.)
Finally, one of the requirements of this entire project was that students needed to peer edit each other’s work. When they posted their stories, essays, and articles on the private forums, I assigned each of them an anonymous user name and gave them an editing schedule: student A needed to proofread the creative non-fiction piece by student B, C, and D, and so on. Before long, students were talking to each other about the writing on the forums. “Hey, did you see that neat piece on makeup that was posted last night?” “Do you think Mr. Friesen will be okay with the language on that essay? You know which essay!” “The feedback I got from that last editor was brutal, but I know it will be helpful.”
I was almost an afterthought, the bald, bearded guy sitting in the corner who had quietly set this entire eldritch process into motion so long ago. I gave feedback too, but by and large I didn’t want to be “the voice of authority” in the class and became more of an arbiter than a judge, agreeing with this editor who said that paragraph breaks were important, disagreeing with that editor who was quite harsh because the assigned piece to edit was about hockey. Students did come to me to ask what the difference was between this or that bit of arcane English wizardry, and to my amazement the students that talked to me one-on-one actually seemed to care about improving the mechanics of their writing. I thought back to my thrilling lectures on the differences between comma splices and run-on sentences and thought to myself, This is how learning should be.
I’m not going to kid you: we talked as a class about forty pieces of literature (poetry, short stories, films, etc.), and I did lecture from time to time. But students weren’t tested on these lectures. In fact, aside from the provincial standardised tests at the end of the year, they had no tests. Even though the students were asked to read Othello, they weren’t required to write one word on the Bard’s play. It was a lot of work, but I also gave them about 1/3 of the entire course to work in-class. My students had busy lives, and I believed that I’d receive better works of writing if I gave them time in class to write instead of forcing them to complete everything at home.
The weeks rolled by, and I quietly kept track of who was completing what, and how many students were close to finishing first drafts of all five assignments. I noted that the more motivated students finished early – one almost a month ahead of time – whereas the “slacker” students were posting articles in the last week, and in fact the last few hours before the end of the course. I feel bad about calling these students slackers because their writing, in comparison with the writing I saw from them last year, was magnificent, beautiful, touching.
The results? 100% completion rate. Every single student finished every single assignment. Yes, some students didn’t complete some of their peer editing, but by and large the experiment was a success. Moreover, the writing itself was riskier and far more interesting than reading a stack of essays all on whether or not Hamlet deserved his fate.
And so, in the last week of school, I sat down with each student to talk about their portfolios. Up to this point, no grades had been assigned. In fact, I had deliberately obfuscated the entire issue of grading: students asked me when I was going to “grade” the assignments and I’d vaguely wave away their concern, saying, “Later, later!” With the issue of grades almost out the window, I think that the students felt more relaxed about their writing, and because they were writing for an audience of peers instead of an audience of an old bearded guy, they were more interested in what they were doing. But that last week, as I sat down with each student and negotiated their grades, I felt a huge sense of accomplishment from each of them. To a student, each of them looked at the stack of paper that had been printed out containing their entire portfolio and said, “I can’t believe I wrote so much!”
When it comes to writing, I’ve been told, there are two variables: time and quality. If you remove time from the equation, then quality will improve. To this I would add that student choice is absolutely and completely critical, especially when it comes to writing. In my next post, I’m going to talk about how I’m expanding this experiment to my English 9, 10, and 11 classes, and how I’m taking the idea of student choice to the next level. See you, education cowboys…