For the last seven weeks, I’ve been home recuperating from two surgeries. The first was planned, to repair a torn ligament on my foot, while the second, my gallbladder removal – Bonus! was not. What started as a disruption to daily routines grew slightly worse. Throw some crutches into the mix alongside a rambunctious black lab, the instigator of the foot injury, and you can imagine the challenges. To pass the time as a respectable literacy coach should, I initially planned to catch up on reading and prepare for upcoming workshops. But the truth is… I didn’t do much of either. For whatever reason I struggled to maintain focus on print, but instead fixed my eyes in front of the TV. Although I wish I could say I watched documentaries, or binge-viewed one of the many epic series, I found myself wandering aimlessly through the channels lingering far too long on E! and HGTV. So now, along with Project Runway, I’ve added two new favorites – Fixer Upper and Rehab Addict.
The basic premise of all three do-it-yourself shows is to create or reimagine something new from scratch; the only difference – the canvas. Unlike Project Runway, which is a fashion competition, Fixer Upper and Rehab Addict are about restoring/remodeling homes. In most cases the home designers work within defined spaces, self-manage their time and have free reign to create, whereas the fashion designers are tasked weekly to think, sketch, create, style and present clothing in a particular genre within a regulated time frame. Hmmm… Week after week they put themselves through this grueling cycle, often facing scathing criticism or worse, elimination. Sometimes they take risks, which pay off, and other times they play it safe, afraid to honor their authentic point of view. And always, self-doubt is on the sidelines, waiting to creep in to expose a vulnerability. Sound familiar?
Nowhere is this more apparent than in writing and in the teaching of writing. Regardless of age or ability, all writers experience anxiety from time to time when faced with a blank page. Sometimes the ideas and words flow easily, while other times they don’t. Most adults can work through the struggle, or at least find a diversion – like organizing the spice cabinet, or the sock drawer, or the linen closet, until the crisis is averted. Unfortunately, our youngest writers don’t always have that freedom, especially given the current environment of testing and evaluation where the lines between process and product can easily become blurred leading teachers to stress over the priority.
As is commonly known, the writing process was revered and defined by the work of Donald Graves, who discovered that children follow similar routines as adults do in the cycle of writing. Careful not to name it as a sequential order of events, Graves said, “When a person writes, so many components go into action simultaneously that words fail to portray the real picture.” Translation: The writing process is not linear. Writers, like other artists, dip in and out of process elements making it far more fluid. This work was shared and extended by Lucy Calkins in her seminal work, The Art of Teaching Writing, where teachers were urged to “shift attention from product and surface features, to an equal concern with process and meaning.” This belief ultimately became the crux of the writing workshop philosophy, researched and refined by members of the Teachers College Writing Project; a movement founded by educators, writers, and poets interested in studying their craft, and honoring its importance in the elementary classroom.
Over the past few years, the structure of writing workshop has changed. Rather than spending an extended amount of time developing a single piece of writing, students are taken through bends or scaffolds to practice and develop several pieces of writing. The purpose of this change is twofold: (1) to develop stronger writing skills alongside genre knowledge, and (2) to emulate the real world where on-demand writing is often expected. This ensures that students get more practice cycling through the process, so that the writing itself becomes more automatic. Although it is reasonable and educationally sound to implement writing instruction in this way, it has changed the culture and tone of workshop. Instead of the contented buzz of children proudly tending to their authored pieces, workshop can feel a bit more frenetic with children racing to complete a task. The result: children may not be spending enough time developing their revision skills. The ability to produce writing automatically is critical especially as students move through middle school and beyond when responding to content-driven inquiry, but equally important, and not to be forgotten, is the capacity and desire to create and develop quality writing. Even given the best intentions, our teachers are under so much pressure to push product over process, especially when end-of-year standards are expected in a mid-year state assessment.
So, what can we do? How do we strike that balance between product and process in our coaching and writing instruction? How do we honor the creative art of writing alongside its academic demands? With the artist Matisse in mind, here are my thoughts:
- Define the differences for our students. Creative people are curious. Our students want to understand the expectations regardless of the task, and it’s our job to make it clear to them. There will be times when they’ll need to write toward a short term goal, and other times when it’s appropriate to linger in the process and develop a piece of writing. It always comes down to audience and purpose. Who is going read it? and What is the expectation? Being clear on those two points is the key to both planning and crafting the writing.
- Plan time for both types of writing. Creative people are flexible, persistent and independent. Our students need the opportunity to practice writing in both ways, but it’s up to us to provide that space in our curriculum and classrooms. One way to achieve this is through following the process shared in the Teachers College units, where the bends provide scaffolds to support parts of both product and process writing. Appropriate planning and timely feedback are key; both need to be fully addressed. Another way is to move through the objectives of the unit four days a week, while setting aside one day for independent writing, or any other plan that honors time for choice and elaboration. This would provide an opportunity for our students to work on a self-selected piece of writing within any genre, in order to develop stronger revision skills.
- Celebrate often. Creative people have a tremendous spirit of adventure and love of play. If we want to honor both product and process, then we need to celebrate both. A celebration doesn’t need to be a publishing party, nor does it require all the bells and whistles. Although celebrating our end goal accomplishments is certainly powerful, honoring achievements along the way holds equal weight. When we can open our notebooks and share our “ideas in process” to a supportive audience, we are learning to trust one another, which naturally aids in creating a community of writers. A community where all members mutually become teachers and coaches.
The on-demand tasks required by the Project Runway contestants do not necessarily yield the best results, but week to week the designers find their stride and learn more efficient ways to create their art. This practice hopefully leads them to the ultimate goal of presenting a collection at New York’s Fashion Week. A collection which represents a body of work they’ve been planning for a while in their hearts, minds and sketchbooks. A collection they’ve had months to create with skills they’ve learned along the way from experience, practice, and their community. A collection that represents a culmination of craft, artistry and form. It’s painful to watch a designer or writer struggle when they’re stuck, and it’s equally challenging to expect high creativity against a time clock. But, regardless of purpose, it’s comforting to remember that inspiration often follows a commitment to practice.