“We have discovered that writing allows even a stupid person to seem halfway intelligent, if only that person will write the same thought over and over again, improving it just a little bit each time. It is a lot like inflating a blimp with a bicycle pump. Anybody can do it. All it takes is time.” – Kurt Vonnegut, Palm Sunday
This has been one of my favorite quotes of all time. I use it every year when I am teaching anything related to good writing, whether that be poetry, music, essays, research, or memoirs. It reminds me that not only do my students have the incredible capacity to learn and improve, but so do I; we do it together.
This year, I coined a slogan in my building. I’m not sure my colleagues are happy with it, but the kids latched on: School is the right place to be wrong. (Learn from your mistakes.)
As I have evolved as an educator over the past eight years, I’ve learned to see my students in this light. They are still children and yes, they will make mistakes. Plenty of them. More than I can count! I have finally come to believe that it is a good thing for my students to make mistakes.
They weren’t too sure about this idea at first (You want me to be wrong? That’s ok? Are you an alien?), but it has changed the culture in my classroom. That took some time. Constant encouragement and a few brave souls to be wrong ALL the time along with seeing my reaction to these mistakes and the way I supported their learning in the classroom has transformed the learning environment. I see them taking greater risks and feeling more confident to speak their minds. What a vast difference from the year before. I can’t keep them quiet, and I love it.
Translate this to the writing process and how my teaching has changed. I now accept as many revisions as it takes to hit the mark until the end of the five week marking period. I do believe that students need deadlines and they have them with other assignment. But writing is hard! To improve one’s writing is incredibly difficult and can often come with feelings of worthlessness and trepidation when students do not feel successful.
Writing is also personal. How many times have you heard a kid say, “You don’t like me, you gave me a C!” I’ve heard it plenty. They are vested in their accomplishments whether they outwardly show it or not.
To tell a student, “I accept nothing less than your best,” and then walk away leaves them hurt and confused. Instead, tell them, “I accept nothing less than your best. Here are ways to improve. Now do it again and again, until you’ve got it.”
Then celebrate the heck out of that success!!!
(I prefer a little song and dance that embarrasses me, but makes them beam. They are in high school and still love their teachers to be a bit silly from time to time.)