Thursday, September 9, 2010

Respecting Student Errors in Writing

An Imperfect Summary of Reading #26:
Romano, Tom. Clearing the Way.

Tom Romano comes out swinging in his book, Clearing the Way. One of the first points he makes is about the uncorrected errors embedded in that writing, he says, “I let them stand...out of respect for error and the part it plays in the process of writing. Human beings are usually messy when they create.” His book continues in that fashion, seeking to push back the boundaries of what typifies an adolescent classroom focused on writing. He encourages teachers to look through--not with a red pen clutched in one hand to expertly edit, but an openness to the possibilities of-- the messiness to the essence of student’s writing.

Students’ preoccupation with what teachers want to read--described as dismally proper paragraphs in school that fail to celebrate each student’s unique personality, particular way of seeing and brand of language in favor of leaden, formulaic writing--squelches their distinctive voice and the writing such a voice can result in. He urges teachers to abandon the focus on form over meaning. One way to accomplish that is to engage in nonstop writing in the form of freewriting since it leads to increased fluency, confidence for students.

Once writers step away from formulaic writing that some teachers want to read, aside from using writing as a tool for communicating, Romano points out that writing is useful for much more. He points out that students can use writing to “discover, create, and explore their thinking, to dig up prior knowledge, to cultivate intellectual independence, to conjecture about possibilities, to struggle with difficult concepts, and to engage the imagination as an ally in learning.” Teachers focus on correcting student writing is likened to stains on a miner’s clothes as she works on mining the mountain of learning possibilities. This hands-on approach makes writing real, worthwhile.

Writing can be used to make personal sense of “learning experiences,” as well as “predictions about future learning.” Literature offers writers a great treasure-house of subject matter; imitating the form of other writers, themselves trying to make “personal meanings clear,” helps student develop creative ingenuity. It also allows student writers to make a connection between their writing and that of other, more established authors. This rigorous interaction with literature can help teachers avoid their knowledge of the “literary masters...oppress our student writers.”

Such writing moves beyond communicating, capitalizing on the generative power that engages individuals crafting understanding. This reflection on learning experiences might be termed “percolating,” an action that occurs throughout the entire writing process. Finished writing, asserts Romano, is the result of such a process. He cites Mayher, Lester and Pradl (1983) view of the writing process which involves percolating, drafting, revising, editing and publishing.

All writers have a process they follow while they work. One of the ways that Romano encourages students to write involves James Moffett’s “spontaneous memory monologue.” This approach involves looking around the room until something kindles a memory. Begin writing, following that memory only until your words make you think of another. Follow memory as it leads from scene to another for 15 to 20 minutes. Romano encourages students to continue the process, creating a studio atmosphere where students learn to write by writing, as well as conferencing about their writing. He goes on to provide examples of what his writing workshop looks like by stage in the writing process.

Tapping into the power of our life force, writing about it means being willing to be vulnerable in front of our students. It means teachers embracing a participatory stance, composing while students do, allowing them to see the first draft and follow one through the messy act of creation. Such honesty exposes the writer, granting teenage the permissions to be awkward and stumble, or “psychically disrobe,” in their efforts to write. This requires a classroom environment that engenders trust among all parties. Such an environment cannot survive in the presence of expert editing that elevates it above all other stages of the writing process.

One of the key points he makes for small group and/or peer conferences is that to help other writers, one does not need to be critical in the sense of “tearing down” or “cast judgement.” Instead, report honestly how the words affect the reader, and ask questions that encourage the writer to elaborate. These conversations about writing require students to focus and clarify their thinking. Conversations about writing focus on what has been written--the written word of a piece--rather than anything else. Some conference strategies include pointing (telling the writer specific things the listener/reader remembered from the text), simple retelling of what the piece was about, eliciting information from the writer that the reader needs answered. Teachers must be careful to not force or manipulate the student into writing the teacher’s vision.

Given that students take ownership for their writing, assessment of writing is a “subjective act” that must be done in the context of 3 areas: 1) what students have gone through in creating the piece; 2) what they have written in the past; 3) what they may write in the future. Students need to be assessed on employing sentence rhythms effectively, using dialog, choosing vivid detail, ending paragraphs with clinching final lines.

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