The other day when I was coaching in a K-8 Chicago school, I was circulating during a writing workshop. Third-graders were brainstorming ordinary small moments from their lives, in their notebooks, tasked to circle one idea and then push themselves to write as much as they could from that idea.
I observed one boy with dark brown eyes peeking above his mask write furiously for some time, the pencil in his left hand moving quickly across the page. I continued watching as he paused, furrowed his brow, then marked a massive X across all the words he had just gotten down.
“Oh buddy, why’d you do that?” I asked, crouching down.
He shrugged. “I wasn’t feeling it,” he said.
Instead of stopping in frustration, he turned back to his bulleted list of small moment ideas and circled another.
I thought about this young writer for the rest of the day and into the evening. I couldn’t stop mulling over his process: what was it that felt so unsettling about his ability to quickly toss out what he had just worked on? That is exactly how an authentic writing process is meant to go. As literacy educators, we aim to teach that the idea-building, revision, and journey toward an audience-ready iteration is imperative to overall learning. And this kid had nailed it.
I realized my discomfort stemmed from my own internalized education and upbringing, from a system that prioritizes flashy final products instead of celebrating the messy parts that get us there.
With this interaction in mind, and dozens of teacher questions I’ve fielded recently in my coaching work, here are three ways to exalt process for young writers, communicating to everyone around us that we care deeply for the path that leads to pieces of pride.
When students are working on their writing across a unit, we often ask that they turn and talk with a partner to share what writing moves they tried. Sometimes at the end of a block, we suggest they share with the whole class one part they worked hard on; or we might have them beeline for a peer they haven’t connected to recently to ask clarifying questions about their writing. All of these efforts serve to establish and support an important culture of feedback, change and growth. One way to memorialize processes and send a clear message that moving across parts of the writing process is essential is to cultivate space for students to record their reflections across time.
Questions you might ask students to record:
- What part of your writing – or which lines- do you like best? Why?
- What part felt the most challenging to work through and why?
- What mentor moves did you try in your writing? What do you think it did to your piece?
Reflection recordings can be done via Google Mote or Google Voice Recorder, and can accompany audience-ready, ‘final’ iterations of writing. When decorating hallway bulletin boards, these reflection recordings can be included for passersby via QR code. Instead of solely hanging up the final pieces, we include excerpts from the brainstorming and drafts that got us there.
Give a listen to this student reflect on fantasy story process.
Careful Language Selection
When I was a kid, even though my parents are immigrants from Iran and I grew up hearing Farsi idioms, I absolutely internalized the phrase ‘practice makes perfect.’ This, like wanting a nice-looking final, was part of my education experience, and it is one that I combat every single day, both as a teacher and as a mother of four elementary-aged children.
There is no such thing as perfect, but paradoxically, perfection is everywhere. It just looks different. And as a writer myself, I know that I am never completely satisfied with a final piece. As I grow and look back at my writing, I always wonder what I must have been thinking, this paradox – the pursuit of unattainable perfection.
As such, I never use the word perfect in the classroom when working with students. Instead of using that language, or even final draft, I swap out for this sort of language:
- Have you tried taking your writing through a couple different versions?
- Which one part of your writing do you feel is ready to share with an audience?
- Which part of your writing do you feel ready to put aside for now?
In Shawna Coppola’s recent book, Writing Redefined: Broadening Our Ideas of What It Means to Compose, she explains, “I prefer to use the term “audience ready” rather than “final” or “published” draft. This sends the message that not all compositions are (or should be) made ready for an audience. However, “audience-ready” also reminds the writer how important it is to attend to those grammars and conventions that will make their work more accessible or “readable” to a wider audience if they choose to do so” (page 27).
Communicating this idea further are the following picture books that I love to bring alive in elementary classrooms to reinforce the paradox of perfection.
- A Perfectly Messed-Up Story by Patrick McDonnell
- Your Fantastic Elastic Brain by JoAnn Deak
- Jabari Tries by Gaia Cornwall
- It’s Okay to Make Mistakes by Todd Parr
- The Dot by Peter Reynolds
- The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires
- The Okay Book by Amy Krouse Rosenthal
- Beautiful Oops by Barney Saltzberg
It is typical at the end of each writing genre and unit to grade the student’s final piece. In many workshop classrooms, students complete ‘on demands’ before and after the writing process piece with all of the lessons, so the on demands can be compared and contrasted to show growth over the course of a unit.
One additional way to highlight the importance of change over time for students is to give a growth grade, instead of or in addition to the other forms of writing assessment or data collection — including conferring and checklists. Students may have a growth grade when they post-it across their final on demand, showing where they tried various mini lessons. Students can use a list of the teaching points — a checklist for the toolkit they learned during the unit — to underline where their new writerly moves show up in their writing, and then a growth grade based on the number of evident attempts can be given. In the same vein, various forms of self-assessment using a universal rubric like this one can be given to students at various points in the process, naming a different strategy or lens to review, asking that students pause to think about application.
When I think about what I hope to instill in young writers, I always come back to a singular desire: to build ideas that they carry through composition a few different ways. My litmus test for the work we do in the classroom pivots on an understanding that collecting one’s own ideas and practicing ways to communicate them will serve students outside classroom walls. And it is with that framing in mind – with children reflecting on their journeys, in carefully selecting the language I use, and in sharing feedback on growth as opposed to the final alone- that I hope to continually communicate the importance of process over product.
Nawal is an educator, literacy consultant and writer based out of Chicago, IL. Nawal worked as a classroom teacher, literacy coach and curriculum developer in Brooklyn and Chicago before launching NQC Literacy in 2014. She and her team support schools and districts by facilitating professional development and coaching around a holistic, balanced approach to literacy instruction: always looking through lenses of cultural-sustainability, inclusion and equity.
Nawal earned a Bachelor of English from the University of Michigan, a Master of Teaching from Brooklyn College, and a Master of Journalism from Syracuse University’s Newhouse School. She won a New Jersey Press Association Award for her international reporting and transitioned into education as a New York City Teaching Fellow. She is the proud daughter of immigrants and her role as a mother to four multiethnic, multilingual kids shapes her approach as an educator. You can find Nawal in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood or on Twitter at @NQCLiteracy.