Friday, April 6, 2018

Writing Takes a Village, or The Part of the Book I Never Used to Read

Do you ever read the acknowledgments at the end of a book? I’ve been a print addict ever since I can remember. My mom had to remove the cereal boxes from the breakfast table if she wanted conversation. How much more compelling were books! Much of my childhood was spent figuring out how to evade life responsibilities like lima beans and bedtime—in the bathroom, under the covers with a flashlight—in order to read. And yet, there is one part of the book I never read until recently: what comes after the end—the acknowledgements. 

Here’s what’s been dawning on me more blazingly than ever before: student writers don’t need feedback because they’re students; they need feedback because they’re writers. Writers of fiction and nonfiction in their acknowledgments thank all those who had a hand in shaping the final work—from the mentor who first encouraged them to publish their journal, to the specialists who gave them essential information on astronomy or 14th century France, to the friends who found all the plot holes and suggested solutions, to the agents and editors who shaped the work all along the way. 

I've been reading a good bit this week since it's spring break. I finished 3 books I’d been working on (Death with Interruptions by Nobel Prize laureate Jose Saramago, Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds by David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken, and The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz), read Turtles All the Way Down by John Green, and started Black Boy by Richard Wright. Now, it does seem that older writers used to hide all the work they did—made it seem more like magic. Wright told the tale of his life, but not of the book. Saramago didn’t, either—but his translator did! Van Reken wrote a posthumous tribute to her collaborator, and Green and Gidwitz wrote acknowledgments that are lengthy (and witty!) enough to be essays in their own right. (Maybe the acknowledgment is developing into its own genre!)

Why did this come home to me so clearly just now? As 11th graders were working on speech writing in the weeks before spring break, I was delighted to see that the last 1-3/4 years of workshopping pieces together has fostered a writing community where students have a growing understanding of writing for an audience, of having things they really want to find out and to communicate, and of needing feedback in order to grow those ideas and craft that expression in order to reach that audience effectively. 

I saw this especially as the class brainstormed their own list of topics on which they wanted feedback from peers (see photo below), and then shared their documents with more than the one required peer. As I was reading the electronic drafts to leave my own feedback, I saw peer feedback that was specific, both positive and constructive, and helpful. I saw writers doing major revisions in response to feedback—one cut from over 5 pages down to 3! And they asked if they could please make more revisions when they were reading their supposed final drafts to partners—and were excited when I said, “Certainly!” 

11th graders brainstormed topics on which they wanted feedback from peers on their writing.

Gidwitz sums it up as he introduces his acknowledgments, beginning with a quote from one of his own characters: “‘When you think about it, each book is a lot of lives. Dozens and dozens of them.’ William is right, of course. Any book takes a whole battalion of supporters and sources, editors and interlocutors, to complete.” If a fictional character in a middle grade book knows that, and his author knows that, then surely we and our students should know that anything we write—newsletter, speech, editorial, essay—should take, if not a battalion of supporters, then at least a handful.

And if you don’t believe me, read the acknowledgements at the end of the next book you pick up. I might even have students write their own acknowledgment for their next piece...hmmm....

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