Pre-Writing or Pre-Procrastinating

Last semester my juniors composed a thesis paper, and it was a rousing success. I had a series of three editing days where students worked in groups editing papers using a process I created, and then the students completed an editing session with me leading the class. The papers were fantastic, and I felt like a very successful teacher.

Then, I gave the same two classes a personal reflection assignment two weeks ago. We went over the expectations as a class, created a list of non-negotiables, and formulated some topics the students could use. I assessed them over the weekend, and now I wonder what kind of teaching I did (or didn’t do).

I couldn’t tell what I had taught and felt like I didn’t know these kids. We had:

  • practiced vocabulary, grammar, and punctuation weekly,
  • used pre-writing practices repeatedly,
  • composed multiple pieces of prose and poetry,
  • used three different editing processes, and
  • reviewed the writing process numerous times.

Still, it looked to me as if the students had simply written something the night before the due date. I think we’re going to have a conversation Tuesday about what happened.

In the meantime, I think the diagram below (from here) sums up my suspicions.

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3 thoughts on “Pre-Writing or Pre-Procrastinating

  1. Anonymous

    LOL on the chart! Although I think it describes many adults’ writing practices too.

    I honestly don’t think that many young writers learn a writing process from what we teach them–certainly not as a group, and certainly not in the regular (testable) fashion that we would hope.

    I know that I ignored my writing teachers’ advice in high school. All I worried about was producing the documentation they required (at the time it was notes, outline, draft, finished piece). I’d do each piece just in time to meet the deadlines, and the finished piece was almost always my lightly proofread draft, not a true REvision. Often times I’d start with the draft and then fake the notes and reverse engineer the outline.

    Thinking about writing as a process when I was seventeen was just too abstract, I believe. My writing was what it was and pretty unchangeable in any conscious way (plus, I didn’t care).

    Later, though, in college, all the advice I’d heard, and all the drafts I’d faked my way through, began to coalesce into a process that worked for me. I took a composition class my senior year based on Peter Elbow’s Writing Without Teachers, and I really started to look at what I was producing and how I was producing it, which I’d never done before. Plus, I started to care about my writing.

    Somehow I cobbled together enough skills and strategies that I became the writer I am today (whatever that is), and I take my own experience back into the writing classroom.

    I show my students several writing processes, and I have them try them all, but I’m pretty sure that I’m only a data point during the very long arc that is their path to writing.

    I’m not surprised that there doesn’t seem to be much carryover from what I teach them on one essay and how they produce the next, nor am I surprised when I see a kid who turned in a competent essay for me turn in a horrible one in the history class next door. I think that’s the nature of the age group and the nature of writing.

    Teaching writing isn’t a hopeless battle, certainly, but our victories come in unpredictable ways and may come long after the troops have left our field.

    Reply
  2. Pat

    When I saw this chart, I thought you had been spying on me! LOL Many of my students think (wrongly of course) that they work best under pressure. I have been told that they get their best ideas when they are under the gun. How do we change that way of thinking?

    Reply
    1. Jim Van Pelt

      There’s a practical way to deal with the “I get my best ideas under the gun” thinking, which is to create projects with multiple deadlines. The more I can get the kids engaged with the writing process on the way to the finished paper, the more I remove the write-it-all-at-the-end habit.

      For example, when writing a story, I’ll ask the kids to e-mail me just the first line of the story a couple of weeks before the total draft is due. I’ll copy the first lines into a PowerPoint, and then we’ll discuss them as a class by looking at what strategy the first sentence is using (is it descriptive, narrative, expository, etc.).

      We’ll do that for other parts of the story, like e-mail me a few lines of good description, or a bit of the most interesting dialogue, or a paragraph that reveals a character’s character.

      The payoff in making multiple deadlines is that we get to examine multiple parts of the project, of course, and interact with the language on a more micro level, but I’m also getting them to work on the project multiple times. When they get close to the rough draft deadline, they’ve already been writing for days, and they can’t default to their preferred technique of writing it all the night before.

      As drpezz pointed out, though, even though they have worked through a technique that produces a much better piece of writing at the end, most of them will fall right back into their old technique if allowed to. There’s no obvious carryover.

      Reply

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