My American literature students had writing workshop today. We read an excerpt from Michel-Guillaume Jean Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer, which I like to read with students because it is the genesis of two tenacious ideas Americans have about themselves: 1) that our country is a great “melting pot,” and 2) that we are somehow a new people (the concept of the “new Adam”) and unique in the world (precursors to American exceptionalism). Crèvecoeur defines an American in the selection we read, and I asked students to write a compare/contrast essay in which they define what they think an American is and see how it aligns or doesn’t with Crèvecoeur’s definition. Students brought drafts to class today to be workshopped.
I have one class that is a bit smaller, and I would characterize the students as lacking in confidence. They can be reluctant to speak up in class discussion sometimes because they second-guess themselves or are afraid of being “wrong.” I have been working on building their confidence, and one of the most surprising methods I’ve tried has been writing workshop. One might think it would be dangerous to try writing workshop in such a class because students who are usually reluctant to participate in class discussions would be doubly reluctant when their own writing is on display. In fact, I have found the opposite to be the case.
We had a student’s paper on the screen today in class. The student said he wanted help with organization, sentence structure, and his introduction. We did some work on the introduction, and by the end of it, it was working well. It also offered an opportunity to clarify some language and to talk a bit about integrating quotes. We took some time to notice and discuss what was working well in the piece. We worked on the sentence structure. One of the students in this class has emerged as a really strong editor. She had some great ideas for alternate word choices and ways to revise sentences to include some more variety. She is particularly astute at holding what the writer has asked for help with in her mind as she makes suggestions. I have noticed many students tend to make comments about whatever they notice, but this girl is a particularly focused editor. I commended her in front of her peers today, and she smiled shyly and said, “I like doing this [editing and revising].” Students who are generally quiet during regular class discussion are more animated in writing workshop.
Another thing I noticed about the student writer was that he had a hunch about some of the issues in his essay. One example he shared went something like “I don’t like that sentence.” I asked him why. He said “I feel like there is something wrong with ‘this.'” Another student said, “Yeah, ‘this’ can be a lot of things.” I said they had zeroed in on a common problem in writing called an unclear pronoun reference, and we spent some time tweaking the sentence until the student decided to add the word “thought”—”this thought”—to clarify what he meant. I bet he and his peers will remember the unclear pronoun reference and look out for it in their writing. I think teachers sometimes think that students don’t believe there are issues with their writing, but it was clear to me today that the student recognized an issue but wasn’t sure how to resolve it, which is where his peers came in.
I think writing workshop is going to be crucial in helping these students develop confidence in English class. I find it interesting that in contrast, my other American literature class, which is usually much more active in class discussion, was a bit quiet and reticent in writing workshop today. While they may have some confidence in discussing ideas in literature, perhaps they are not quite there when it comes to writing.
The smaller class has already asked for a second day of writing workshop. I will offer it to my larger class, and I’ll be interested to see what they want to do. I would like to push them a bit harder with workshop, but I also recognize that they are not comfortable with it yet. I am feeling the tension between helping them build confidence and pushing them into that zone of proximal development.
My favorite quote from a student in that larger class today: “Man, you know a lot about citations. And stuff.”
My goal for the end of the year is for them to say that about themselves.