Humility Is the Beginning of Grace: On Writing with Students

Spring 2018

By Brent Kaneft

This year I tried something new on the first day of class. I gave my students a copy of my work, a piece of flash creative nonfiction (800 words) that I eventually submitted to Hippocampus magazine for publication. I asked the boys to provide feedback on my writing in the same manner they would like me to provide feedback on theirs. For me, this was the equivalent of a trust fall. What if they didn’t think I was a good writer? Would they listen to me for the rest of the year? I told them I had purposefully not edited the piece before passing it out and that there were likely some careless errors. Believe it or not, I hoped there were. It still felt risky—my credibility was on the line. Just what was I trying to convey to students in this exercise?
  1. I make mistakes, too.
  2. Part of the writing process is asking for feedback.
  3. I love to write. I do it all the time. It brings me joy.
  4. I trust you with something that is fragile and constantly needs reinforcement: my writer’s ego. I hope that this will help you trust me with yours.
All year we ask students to write for us (unfortunately, sometimes just for us), and we often forget how nerve-racking this process is for many of them. For me, this initial exercise was a great way to start the year. It was a natural extension of my focus on modeling writing for my students for me to give them the opportunity to read pieces I’m working on.

In 2010, I was a young teacher, fresh out of graduate school, and I didn’t know how to model writing for my students. My paper assignments centered around “academic” writing (argumentative and analytical essays, some research sprinkled in). I had done all the “academic” writing I was going to do; plus, who has time to write a quality essay with the students when you’re working with 50+ kids to bring theirs to life? I spent my time on my students’ work, and that was exhausting. I always loved to write, but as a teacher charged with developing fledgling writers, I never found the time. I recognized, however, the paradox of my position: How can you teach writing if you don’t write?
Recently, I was inspired by a quote from educational leader George Couros: “‘In our world today, what is a student more likely going to need to be able to write: an essay or a blog post?’ This question pushes some people to a place of discomfort.”1 And he was right—the question made me uncomfortable. Will my colleagues think I’m not really teaching if my students are writing blog posts? Will that prepare them for college? I didn’t abandon “academic” writing, but Couros’s question, his challenge, made me think that I’d been going about my writing assignments all wrong. I needed kids to write all the time, not just for two or three major essays each quarter, and the only way to make that happen was to create smaller, more manageable assignments that, consequently, allowed me to participate. Here are four simple, short, and fun assignments you can do with your students.

1. Moleskines

I ordered three-packs of pocket-size Moleskine notebooks for each of my students. I told them that by the end of the semester, these three should be filled with writing: thoughts, quotes, outlines, reflections, poems, lists, whatever—just write! I’ve carried a Moleskine on me for nearly 10 years, and whenever I have a break, I write. Now I hold myself to the same expectation: three Moleskines each semester. I also model this practice around school. After chapel, I write down some notes on the lesson; after a guest speaker, the same; and sometimes students catch me in a rocker under the pergola writing poetry. It doesn’t matter where or how; what matters is that I’m putting my money where my mouth is.

With Moleskines (or any substitute), students begin to think of themselves as writers, not students writing for class. And if students are constantly writing, it becomes a part of their identity. Each year, we English teachers battle the same narratives: “I’m not a writer,” “I hate reading,” “I’m just no good at English.” We must change these narratives, and a simple Moleskine can begin that process. If I need to fill three Moleskines, I must always be looking for things to write about. Grammar mistakes, MLA, topic sentences: These are absent in this process. Students are free to create without the burden of making mistakes.

2. Ten-Minute Exercise

This is the classic free-write assignment although, at the beginning of each week, my students and I will tweet a philosophical truth and then base our writing on those tweets. Here are two examples:
Students have a difficult time writing something philosophical that isn’t a cliché, but each week I am surprised by what they come up with. We choose one tweet and write about it for 10 minutes, and then we comb through what we’ve written and find our best lines. We read them out loud, and only positive feedback is allowed.

3. Twitter Stories           

I started a subscription with Creative Nonfiction magazine two years ago. The magazine has an ongoing “Tiny Truths” competition on Twitter. Tell a true story that’s meaningful in 140 characters (including #cnftweet). Each year, for my American Literature students, I include the “Six-Word Story” contest (attributed to Ernest Hemingway), and my students love it. And they’re good at it. If you can tell a story in six words, you can certainly tell one with 140 characters at your disposal. So I figured I would give the “Tiny Truths” competition a go. This is an engaging exercise that any teacher can implement and participate in.
The feedback I got was incredible. My students were spending 20 to 25 minutes writing their stories. They paid attention to word choice, syntax, and punctuation—everything we want as writing teachers. It is the old skill of the sonnet writer: Do more with less. The attention the students gave their writing paid off. And knowing that their followers and the wider writing community would see their work was motivating.
We created our own hashtag (#csgstory) to collect our stories, but students also submitted their work to Creative Nonfiction (@cnfonline). They were getting likes and comments from professional writers. Two of my students won the daily competition and were retweeted by Creative Nonfiction. It’s one thing for me to tell a student he’s doing good work, but it’s empowering when a literary magazine says it. I am curious how this exercise will benefit from the future expansion of characters from 140 to 280.

4. Blog Posts

This year I am assigning blogs to the students. The parameters are simple—500(ish) words, choose a topic you care about, include pictures (without infringing on copyright issues), and pay attention to design (font, font size, formatting). Each Monday they submit their blog posts to me, and I submit mine to them. I edit their posts throughout the week and return them on Friday. After they revise their work, they post them.
To be fair, I don’t get to this every week, but when I do, the students love it. They have trouble peer editing—they always have actually—but when it’s the teacher’s work, they begin to develop sound editing skills. I think they feel that their opinions matter in this case. They want to show me how they think as writers, and they know I’m going to read their feedback. Peer editing often doesn’t go that way. There’s a sense of “Who are you to tell me how to write?”
What I love about open-subject blog posts is that I learn more about the students while also helping them improve their skills. The work is easier and more interesting for me to edit because the topics and purpose for each piece are so different—travel blogs, political blogs, sports blogs, etc. Everyone approaches this assignment differently. To me, when an assignment develops skills and builds rapport, it’s a win-win.
Participating in the assignments you give your students is risky. Students will let you know when they don’t like your work. But you’re a teacher, and you have a strong back. That being said, the greatest lesson that writing with students has taught me is one in humility—I don’t know everything about writing. What? You, the chair of the department, don’t know everything about writing? Then who does?

Well, no one does, and that’s why grace always follows closely behind humility. Humility gives us perspective (you don’t know everything), and perspective allows us to offer grace. Writing with students has reminded me that I don’t always feel like writing, that sometimes it frustrates me, and that time constraints play a role in the quality of my work. If that’s true for me, it’s true for my students, which allows me to offer them some grace when their work isn’t up to par.

1. George Couros, The Innovator’s Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity (San Diego, CA: Dave Burgess Consulting, 2015).
Brent Kaneft

Brent Kaneft ([email protected]) chairs the English Department at Christ School, an all-boys boarding school in Arden (North Carolina).