This year I got one of my favorite ever Christmas cards from a student. I love it because it showed me the student had gotten a truth about writing that I try to help students wrap their heads around: the importance of the bad first draft.
We all have a little editor that sits on our shoulder (or on top of our head, as the case may be) criticizing every idea that tries to make its way onto paper. For some of us that editor is bigger and more vociferous than for others. Some of us can sit and stare at a computer screen for an entire 45-minute class period, typing and erasing the same sentence. That is a full-blown case of writing constipation. It not only wastes a lot of time and stress, but also if you don’t get any words on the paper, you don’t have anything to work with. You can’t make it better. And you don't know what amazing idea might have popped out if you could just have gotten going. The trick is to tell the little editor to sit down and be quiet and you’ll call him when you’re ready.
I experienced that myself this week. My AP Language class wrote an in-class essay Wednesday. After my blog last week about the importance of writing teachers writing, I felt a little pressure from myself to write along with the students. So I did. But as I sat listening to the class's pencils scratching away industriously, contemplating all the ideas rolling around in my head and how to wrangle them into some sort of order—the minutes were ticking by, and my page was still blank. I seriously considered that I WAS the teacher, and there was absolutely nothing stopping me from just quitting. Pretending I had never planned to write the essay.
Then I got a hold of myself and followed my own advice: I told my little editor to sit down and be quiet, and I just started writing. (Except that’s not the usual advice for a timed AP essay—that advice is to spend 10 minutes reading and planning, and then follow the plan. But I hadn’t been able to come up with a plan! Just a lot of random ideas.) I had a pretty good analogy for a hook. Then out popped a really interesting sentence that I hadn’t planned on. But it might even work for a thesis—if I could follow it with a preview of points. Which I still couldn’t come up with. So I left a line blank and started in on the first body paragraph. Then the next one. Then the next. They were actually pretty good in themselves. Still not a lot of coherence from one to the next. Suddenly there were only 10 of the 40 minutes left, and I had at least 3 more really good ideas I hadn’t gotten to, still no preview of points, and no inspiration for a conclusion. I just charged ahead and wrote as fast as I could. The ending was pretty lame. I collected student papers with promises to read them over for a debriefing discussion the following day.
When I got home and pulled out the stack of papers, my eyes fell on mine. I immediately spied a silly error in the first line, which I automatically corrected with the green marking pen in my hand. Being a bit of a print addict, I sort of couldn’t help myself from reading on. “Not as bad as I thought!” though I automatically made a few additions or deletions as I went. I winced when I got to the end—but immediately had an idea—which I quickly jotted in my green pen.
As I read over the rest of the “bad first drafts,” compiling comments for our debriefing discussion, I thought, “It isn’t really fair that I got to add to my draft and the students didn’t.” So first thing the next day, I handed the papers back and gave everyone else 5 additional minutes.
I’m so glad I wrote that in-class, timed, bad first draft with my students. I’m glad because it reminded me in my gut of the importance of just getting on with the writing. Adding on that 5 minutes for revising after putting the draft to rest reminded students that timed essays really are just training for churning out bad first drafts. It also gave me a lot of other observations to use in our debriefing discussion. (Including ones I’ve never seen in an AP test prep book, but, well, sometimes you have to just ride the writing wave. It's preferable to drowning, anyway.) I never did get back to the preview of points--but maybe the open thesis is sufficient here. At least sufficient for a bad first draft.
What happens when you write with your students? What do you learn? What do your students learn? How do you get your own and your students’ little resident editors to sit down and be quiet until their time comes?