Starting is hard.

I hear it a lot from my students when it comes to writing assignments. I mostly work with 16-19s who, for any number of reasons, haven’t done brilliantly in school. They often see the blank page much like a rabbit would see the bright dead eyes of a Landrover’s headlights as it bears down on them signalling their inextricable and extremely squidgy doom. It roots them to the spot.

I try to combat this paralysis in a number of ways. We explicitly look at the part of the writing process that deals with answering academic questions by identifying key-words and guessing as to what the question is really asking. We look at how to refer to the question in the first few lines so that the opening paragraph practically writes itself. We look at exactly what it is the students are afraid of. To be honest, that one interests me least because it’s usually the same old tune: fear of failure, the idea of not being good enough or the fact that you’ve actually got to put a modicum of effort into it and actually, you know, try.

Like I said. Hard.

I feel the same writing this blog. Granted, I’m no frozen rabbit when it comes to the English language. I love it, it’s my joy and I’ve been lucky enough to have turned it into my profession, but what does make it slightly more arduous is that I haven’t got a concrete question to answer, in fact, I’m not even sure what form this thing is going to take. I can now appreciate a little better what a student must feel like when they write the first sentence of an essay where they don’t fully understand what’s needed from them.

Basically, I’m asking for the same thing I try to give my students: some time, a few pointers in the right direction and maybe I’ll come up with something that (whilst not exactly Shakespeare) is fairly coherent and might be of interest. If not, then I’ll give up on it within a couple of lines and start messing about on my iphone.

Either way, job’s a goodun.

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5 comments

  1. Sally Canzoneri

    Thomas,
    Try to get your hands on the “In The Middle” by an American English teacher, Nanci Atwell. (Pearson publishes her here, so they probably do there.) She developed her approach to teaching reading and writing with middle school (6th – 8th grade – whatever forms those translate into), which is a younger age group than yours, but that really doesn’t matter. Her kids are poor, rural in Maine (a poor state, even if the Bushes do vacation there). She got terrific results, and every teacher I’ve ever met who uses her methods loves them. I know I do.

    Atwell advocates giving kids what adult writers need & get, including the freedom to choose what to write about. This is one aspect of her approach that can be difficult for teachers to implement, particularly in a system that rigidly dictates the curriculum to be followed. But it can be done. For example, say your students are supposed to answer that academic question with a formulaic response: e.g., topic sentence, supporting reasons, conclusion. But they can’t write that off the bat because they don’t understand the question, so they have no idea what to say, and it’s dead boring to them. Still, there are things they know and can write about; and in the process, they can learn to write persuasively. So have them write their own opinions about the question itself: do they understand it? Why? Why not? What is the real reason why they are being asked to answer this question? To make them miserable? To help them learn the joys of English literature? (I was a very good student, but I positively hated English Lit classes & I remain convinced that many English teachers have convinced lots of students that poetry is just too difficult for ordinary people.) Whatever the question-writers were trying to do, is there a better question they could have asked? What is it? And why would it do the job better than the question they did ask?

    As I said, I hated writing assigned essays in English classes. Now, when I’m tutoring students who feel the same way, my advice is to do what i did: figure out some way to make the topic interesting enough to you for long enough to write the essay. I had to come up with that solution all on my own, as most of my teachers would have been scandalized by my approach. Fortunately, I was a strong writer, who was motivated to, and could, hide my contempt for the assignments. However, it sounds like your students are not, and even you are discouraged by the struggle to help them get something written. But if you can let them respond to the academic question in a way that allows them to talk about things that matter to them, they will have things to say. If they are invested in their first draft, they will care about the revision process, because they will want their writing to be more convincing. That’s when you can focus on structure.

    I read somewhere that William Faukner said that writing a first draft is like putting up a house in a hurricane. It’s a thing I tell students regularly. “In a hurricane, what you need to do I’d get up the walls and the roof,” is my line. “After the sun comes out is when you paint the shutters and plant window boxes.” Faced with a blank page, many people panic because they feel that they must get it right immediately, and they are critiquing their writing as they write. But that doesn’t work. We all have a Writer Person & an Editor Person in our head. When the Writer is working s/he must just send the Editor out – to Starbucks, for tea, to buy the groceries, whatever, and bar the door behind him/her. The Editor can get to work when there is a draft, but not sooner.

    One final point in this overly long comment. One extremely valuable lesson I learned from Nanci Atwell is to always write along with the students, and to share my drafts with them. For one thing, the modeling of behavior is a great teaching method; in addition, it helps me realize when a writing idea I thought would be great is really bad. When I have the class share after we’ve written for a while, I’m able to model the behavior and language of a helpful writing group member; and if there is time for me to share what I’ve written, it lets the students to see that everyone makes mistakes and that nobody’s first draft is perfect.

    I don’t have time to review this before posting, so please forgive any writing errors, and — more importantly — please forgive if my tone is off or in any way at all condescending. Tone of (verbal) voice causes so much ill will in places like Twitter (through which I found your blog) that I try my best to avoid misunderstandings on line. Nonetheless, it is bound to happen.

    Best Regards,
    Sally

    • tstarkey1212

      Hi Sally,

      Some excellent insight there about the fears that some feel as they gaze at the page. I especially like the ‘house in a hurricane’ metaphor. I’ve recently been doing WW1 poetry and found a website that archived the original texts; corrections, annotations and all. Here’s the link:

      http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit/

      Letting students see the primary materials (warts and all) goes some way to convincing them that writing is a process – that perhaps there is no best way and (let’s whisper it as not to scare them) it’s alright to make mistakes starting out.

      Thank you so much for the input – it’s great that you’ve read the blog and put something of yourself in there.

      Much Appreciated,

      Tom

      • Sally Canzoneri

        Tom,
        Thanks for your reply, and the fine reference to WWI poetry. I think seeing primary sources is tremendously helpful to all students, whatever their age. I think that lack of historical imagination is more lacking in the States than in Britian, but it’s difficult for anyone to put themselves in a time and place when they have no concrete experience. Having a sense of the time when literary work was written is a big help in understanding and appreciating the work itself.

        I think that getting one’s mind around WWI and how devastating it was for Europe is an enormous task. It’s one of those historical periods, like the American Civil War and the Holocaust, that one is always learning more about. They are fascinating, inspiring, and horrifying all at once; and always.

        Though you are doing poetry, your students may like to read some historical fiction about the period. I’ve found two series of novels gripping. The obvious one is Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, I think she does a fabulous job of making the horror of the war real to readers, and the difficulties faced by the characters (both real and fictional figures) are, in many ways very current. A few years ago, I saw the Sargent painting of a line WWI soldiers, gassed & blinded, being led to help. It fills a whole wall, and is the most anti-war piece of art I can imagine. The last passage of Barker’s The Ghost Road is like a written version of the painting. When I saw the painting, it was in a big exhibition of Sargent’s work and the juxtaposition of that painting with his portraits was as jarring as the juxtaposition between the front and home must have seemed for many soldiers. (The recent TV adaptation of Parad’s End had a lot of that too.) By the way, there is a good movie adaptation of Regeneration that you could recommend to students less inclined to read the books.

        Jacqueline Winspear’s Masie Dobbs mystery series is, obviously,less literary than Barker’s work. The initial story of Masie rising from housemaid to Oxford student is rather contrived and unrealistic, but one must make allowences for popular detective novels. Once past that, (which is still an enjoyable — if guilty — pleasure) the novels do a really good job of bringing to life the long, lingering after-affects of the war, the emotional damage suffered by so many Britons, and a society forced into so much change so quickly.

        Now, I’ve gone on too long again. I hope your students — and you — enjoy the unit. And that I’ve not bored you too much tonight.

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