FOR SALE: An Assessable Writing Process
By Pam DeMartino
In the real estate industry, housing is the sellable commodity. People want a house, or an apartment, or a building within which to operate a dream. Realtors market these living quarters by highlighting the square footage, updated amenities, and location, location, location. Buyers will also be told when the structure was built, but curiously, not how the structure was built. Documentation of the building process remains buried amidst the title documents because it is the dwelling – the finished construct – that possesses the tradable worth.
As I listened to my colleague’s discourse during one of our department meetings, I realized that we, as secondary educators, are increasingly taking part in this type of real estate market with regard to student writing. We devote time and attention only to the final pieces of student writing: the polished or publishable draft. It is that typed and neatly stapled paper that carries the tradable worth in our departments; only the end of the building process garners our assessment. Rubrics and scoring guides separate organization, focus, details and other discrete aspects of the finished paper, failing in all respects to give recognition to the building of the literary publication.
Assigned to read one of Donald Murray’s many erudite articles on writing, I found myself nodding my head up and down to his description of most English teachers’ training that was “honed by examining literature, which is finished writing,” and, as a direct result, teachers “teach writing as a product.” Particularly problematic with this approach is the expectation conveyed to students that their writing should somehow equate with that of professional and often legendary writers. It’s no wonder some students give up before they even get started when, still learning how to erect the walls, they are faced with building an entire structure.
My reading assignment was also paired with the research of Carol Dweck, who finds that students who exhibit what she calls a “growth mind-set” experience greater academic achievement than those students described as having a “fixed mind-set.” Fixed mind-set students care little for the process and seek recognition only for their final work product. In contrast, students with a growth mind-set value the experience gleaned from effort and persistence. This type of mind-set results from praising the hard work that occurs in the process of learning. Dweck claims that praise “for the specific process a child use[s] to accomplish something fosters motivation and confidence by focusing children on the actions that lead to success.” Arguably, the inference to be drawn here is that omitting such praise and recognition can actually prevent a student from realizing his/her full academic potential.
Supporting the building of the language that emerges on the pages of students’ assignments challenges English teachers for a number of valid reasons, all of which boil down to one incontrovertible issue: time. Pulling work from students as they write, evaluating the writing in stages, and conferencing with students individually are all facets of writing instruction that take time. A writing assignment that requires evidence of the work in progress, as suggested by Murray, will also require extensive time on the part of the English teacher to read, monitor, and respond to the stages of development. The praise deemed crucial by Dweck must also be given promptly in the course of the process in order for it to retain its effectiveness. But with increasing student enrollment, added preps, remedial support duties, and layers of initiatives, today’s secondary English teachers have less and less time to consider student writing in any other form but its final version. How then can timely and constructive assessments occur in the course of a particular writing assignment?
One method of process assessment I’ve tried is reviewing the drafts of the assignment separate and apart from the finished paper. Reading through two prior drafts should reveal changes in word choice, syntax, or even details. For many students, the only thing more painful than writing is re-writing. Commending them by attributing “points” to that part of the process will validate the exercise for those students who lack concern for their growth as writers. These preliminary drafts can also serve as an objective post-writing lesson. Pairing a draft with a final paper, students can be asked to read and compare the work of another student. Essential questions for this type of evaluative activity can include: What do you notice as the most significant difference between the two pieces of writing? What revision strikes you as a sign of development by the writer?
Another option for process assessment is to make the final product the draft. In other words, assign a paper that is never taken to conclusion. I utilize this approach when teaching argument writing. Students are required to complete their research and incorporate it into an outline which is graded as the final assignment. Students are always somewhat bewildered that they are not then asked to write the paper. My point is made that organizing ideas and research is the foundation of an effective argument paper. So too, a revised draft can also serve as a summative assessment of student progress.
Student accountability can make for a third assessment option. Upon completing a writing assignment, students can share their own insight and experience through a short reflection. Again, attributing a point value to such an assignment will mark it as a worthy exercise for students and one that can prove quite revealing to teachers in terms of the perceptions of their students toward writing.
Dweck and Murray both endorse praise for the process work – the building work – of the endeavor. As writers, we are builders of a craft. We help support our students’ efforts brick by brick.
Dweck, Carol S. “The Secret to Raising Smart Kids.” Scientific American. 2007 December
Web. 14 September 2016.
Murray, Donald M. “Teach Writing as a Process not a Product.” Cross Talk in Comp Theory.
Second Ed. Victor Villanueva. Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 2003.
Pam DeMartino is a Pennsylvania Writing & Literature Project fellow.