One of our greatest challenges as teachers is that of quieting our students’ overheated minds to the deep and sustained work of writing. The old axiom “Show, don’t tell” applies both on the page and in the classroom. Clearly, our students absorb more from what we do than from what we say. But since writing is inherently solitary, how is it possible for us to model it? In recent years, I’ve been experimenting with four unconventional approaches to cultivate new passion for writing in our school community.
1. Modeling First Drafts: Launch a Joint Student/Faculty Writing Challenge
In his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King describes two stages to his writing process. During the first draft, he keeps his door closed, locking out internal and external critics. On completion, he flings the door open, inviting feedback from trusted readers and his own inner editor—comrades on the road to revision.1 Students who blend these two phases for supposed expedience often agitate over every sentence, backing themselves into paralysis. As educators, how can we encourage students to give themselves permission to write what Anne Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird, fondly refers to as “shitty first drafts”?2
To elevate the blitzkrieg first draft to the status of Holy Grail, our school has customized a joint student/faculty writing challenge based on the model of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), which dares participants to write 50,000 words in the month of November. The idea of NaNoWriMo is to board the train November first and not look back until the 30th. No editing. No deleting. No inner backseat driving. By the end of the month, participants have produced a mound of clay ready to be molded and shaped. NaNoWriMo is an ingenious antidote to the sort of second-guessing that freezes creative sap.
But who in the midst of a busy semester has time to write 50K words in 30 days? We solved this dilemma by allowing participants to personalize their objectives. In the past, individual goals have included a haiku a day, short stories, letter-writing, and, yes, novel chapters. Each week I email participants links to pep talks. No one is obligated to disclose progress or share work (though, as described in #3 below, avenues for sharing exist). Unlike so much of what happens within the walls of a school, the motivation for this endeavor is gloriously intrinsic.
When we first launched this challenge eight years ago, we had six wary participants. There had to be some hitch. No papers to turn in? Nothing graded? Writing for the love of it? It sounded suspicious. But word spread. Fledgling writers became electrified as the number of participants grew each year. Out of a school of about 600, 50 partook in 2017, 10 of them faculty members. A sign-up poster enabled teachers and students to see who else was onboard. Students ventured questions about what their teachers were working on and vice versa. Even those who did not participate couldn’t help but notice how their friends were ignited by the headlong energy of an unbridled first draft.
2. Modeling Revision: Share Your Process
In his memoir, King includes an early draft of one of his story openings. “It is completely raw, the sort of thing I feel free to do with the door shut—it’s the story undressed, standing in nothing but its socks and underwear.”3 Next, he offers the second draft, complete with his proofreading marks, marginalia, and copious notes to himself regarding needed changes.4 From the slab of marble, he begins to delineate the sculpture within.
Like many writers, King credits his success to his relentless commitment to rewrite.5 When my editor offered me six pages of feedback on my new novel manuscript, I projected her letter on the classroom SMART Board along with a quick scroll through her line edits to show students the metamorphosis a book undergoes before publication. They were astonished. Was my novel really so shoddy? I explained that a weaker manuscript would have received a significantly shorter response, beginning with “I regret to inform you …” Even F. Scott Fitzgerald relied on Maxwell Perkins’ scalpel.
Share your writing process in whatever form it takes. Do your report card comments originate with rough bullet points? Do you revise important emails before clicking send? How about cover letters for job applications? PowerPoint presentations for meetings? If you use Twitter, how do you crystalize a paragraph of meaning into 140 characters? Some users do so with art and precision; others, not so much. How about sharing with students an early draft of an Independent Teacher article? Mine would be usefully embarrassing. Whatever you write, demonstrate how you get from A to B. By visually sharing our own revision process, we allow students to see the truth behind the Nathaniel Hawthorne adage, “Easy reading is damned hard writing.”
3. Modeling Sharing: Post Faculty and Student Writing on a Common Platform
Five years ago I created an in-house password-protected school site called “Newark Academy Writing, Art & Music Blog,” affectionately known as “WAM!” Here students, staff, faculty, and alumni share their writing and other creative endeavors on a common platform. The first post was from a faculty member working on a funny, highfalutin science fiction novel begun during NaNoWriMo. A physics teacher, his secret identity as a sci-fi writer was a surprise. Every few months, he would post a new chapter. Students devoured it. Another teacher posted essays about his experiences in the Peace Corps. A member of the maintenance department shared song lyrics. A Spanish teacher posted villanelles his class had written on a whiteboard. Students started sharing more work, including poetry by a popular football player. The culture around creativity began to shift. On the ladder of coolness, writing stepped up a rung.
While the in-house version of the WAM blog is designed to give space to polished as well as fledgling pieces—doodles and sticky-note poems—I have since created a separate “selected works” version, open to the public, that features award-winning or accomplished pieces, enabling interested students and faculty to share work side-by-side on a larger scale. The whiteboard poems did not appear there, but published excerpts of the Peace Corps memoir did, along with the opening chapter of a Scholastic National Gold Medal-winning novel written by a graduating senior, which may well attract nibbles from literary agents. The more teachers take risks by sharing their work, the more students feel encouraged to do the same. Today I can hardly keep up with submissions to WAM.
4. Modeling Community: Create Structures That Support Writing
Here are some additional ideas:
- Contest blog: As a tool for my Creative Writing class, I created an in-house “Creative Writing News” blog where students can access links to youth literary magazines and dozens of well-established contests, including the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), New Jersey Council of Teachers of English (NJCTE), Letters About Literature, and YoungArts, as well as summer creative programs such as the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio and Kenyon Young Writers Workshop. The blog also keeps track of recent Newark Academy publications and awards so that students can see where their peers find success. I offer information about upcoming literary readings and texts on craft, such as the Lamott and King books mentioned above. I tell students that I am constantly learning from authors I love. Having published a novel does not mean I’ve stopped growing as a writer. I encourage them to think of writing as a skill they can always continue to hone. The blog is one tool in their toolbox.
- Monthly newsletter: In addition, I began sending out a monthly newsletter to the Creative Writing class and any other interested students. The newsletter lists upcoming contests by deadline and gives quick reference points regarding eligibility and requirements, making it easy to target suitable opportunities. Students often meet with me in person for advice on where to send their work. Subscribers to the newsletter now number 180, nearly a third of the student body.
- Creative writing coordinator position: If you wonder how realistic it is for a teacher to continue orchestrating a school-wide writing challenge, three blogs (the private and public “WAM” and the Creative Writing News), a monthly newsletter, and one-on-one meetings with students—it isn’t. In my fervor to build a writing community, I created a beast that devoured my time. Fortunately, my school saw the value of these projects—which was manifested in awards, publications, play productions, and, more important, student enthusiasm for writing—and created the position of Creative Writing Coordinator. Not only am I grateful to be compensated for my time, I’m happy to know that the thriving writing community at Newark Academy will continue to flourish long after I’m gone. Structures matter.
- Faculty writing circle: Soon after coming to Newark Academy, I discovered several other writers on the faculty—poets, fiction writers, memoirists, bloggers, and diary-keepers. Some had published books, essays, or Letters to the Editor. Others kept their writing strictly private. Five of us started meeting in a classroom once a week for half an hour after school to write together, each on his or her own project. The idea may sound counterintuitive. Why do solitary work in the company of others? But those 30 minutes per week gave us license to feed our creativity, vitally important in a profession where the workload is boundless. The circle also gave us the opportunity to chat about writing goals, stumbling blocks, and potential venues for our work. Curious students began asking what we were doing, often surprised to learn that we were, each in our own way, dedicated writers. Conversations unfolded. Not only did the circle bolster our creative energy in the midst of demanding jobs, it showed students how we used writing to distill and express our lives, that we supported each other in this process, and that we prized it enough to carve out the time to make it happen.
While it is valuable to model process and technique for our students, the most important thing we can demonstrate is that the attainment of writing skill is not just a hoop to jump through in school but a vehicle for critical and creative thinking, a tool to help navigate life. The best way we can model writing for our students is by attending to it ourselves.
1. Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (New York: Scribner, 2000), p. 47.
2. Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (New York: Pantheon, 1994), pp. 21-27.
3. King, On Writing, pp. 277-281.
4. Ibid., pp. 282-291.