An Eraser-Free Workshop and the Language We Use for Talking About It

eraser

When I visit a classroom, one of the first things I often say to kids is, “Today, please don’t erase. I want to see ALL the great work you are doing as a writer. When you erase, your work disappears!”

Often, this is what kids are accustomed to and they continue working away. But sometimes, kids stare at me as if I’ve got two heads. Some kids are confused by the request for no erasing. Others, in fact, give me an angry stare. The perfectionists in the room (even at 7 or 8 years old) sometimes try to sneakily erase anyway. I often circulate the room, coaching into the new routine.

“Just a single line through works perfectly. This way you can see ALL the hard work you’ve done.”

“Wow! Look at all the changes you are making to your writing. You’ve really learned a lot about revising. Can I share how you did this with other kids?”

“Crossing things out to make changes shows that you know that writers are always revising. It shows that you’re working hard on your writing. It shows that you are always thinking and problem solving.”

By noticing and naming the work kids are doing when they cross things out, you can make it replicable–so they can do it over and over again on many pieces of writing, not just the one they happen to have in front of them.

I’m mindful of the kind of language I use. I try to keep in mind what I’ve learned from masterful educators like Peter Johnston, and from researchers like Carol Dweck. I want to use words that will build a sense of agency and independence–a willingness to make mistakes and try and try again. I used to say things like, “Good writers do this…” or “I like/love how you…” Now, instead, I try to use judgement-free language. Instead of teaching kids to do things to get praise from the teacher, I try to name what they’re doing in an objective way, and in a way that gives kids ownership over their work instead of growing their dependence on adults. “I noticed/see how you…” “You must have worked hard on…”

You see, I can get kids to cross things out for me, by saying over and over “I love how you crossed things out!” But then they’re really only doing it to please the teacher, instead of making changes to their work as a way to solve problems, try new things, and make their own work the  best that it can be.

This of course applies to learning across the day… but back to crossing things out instead of erasing…

Kids (and teachers) often wonder why I am such a stickler about this. I go to great lengths to promote crossing out — even cutting the erasers off of pencils and (gasp!) switching to pens instead of pencils.

A few advantages of a consistent, “no-erasing” policy in writing workshop:

  1. As stated above, erasing makes it impossible to know all the work that the student did, therefore impossible to assess the entire process.
  2. Erasing implicitly teaches students that we don’t want to see mistakes–when in fact we know that effective teaching must encourage mistakes and problem solving.
  3. Erasing can be time-consuming, using up important minutes of writing time. Putting a line through it is quick.
  4. Erasing (ironically) often makes student work more difficult to read.
  5. Erasing has the potential to become a strategy for “fake writing,” a phenomenon where students look like they are hard at work, when in fact they’ve been writing the same sentence (or drawing the same stick figure) over and over.
  6. Erasers themselves, as an object, can be distracting with all the various shapes, colors, sizes, wear and tear, and varying levels of quality one might find in a given classroom.

The list could go on. In any case, I’ve yet to experience very many advantages of erasing. I often give older, fluent writers the choice.

Of course, I’m open to changing my mind. As a writer, I am always revising my work, making changes, crossing things out, and adding new bits. As a teacher, I do the same, always making changes to my teaching and revising my own thinking.