Classrooms Chalk Talk: How the writing process grows us up

  • erin feldman

Published: 12/18/2018 9:52:34 PM


At all grade levels, teaching the writing process is as ubiquitous as assigning homework. Language arts teachers are especially tasked with instructing the writing process and assessing the quality of what students produce when they follow the sequence they have learned.


However, with a focus and fidelity parallel to our English Department comrades, instructors of math, world language, dance, science, history, theater, music and visual arts all teach our own versions of the writing process. In its simplest form this process often follows this recipe: brainstorm, outline, draft and revise. Anybody who makes anything follows this pattern to make — a play, a lab report, a translation, and perhaps, in the future, even a constitutional amendment.

But there’s something deeper stirring here, something crucial to learning compassion, cooperation and self-respect. The capacity to make good decisions or collaborate with people both opposite from and similar to ourselves comes from mixing external information, critical thinking, and personal insight. What is being taught (knowingly or not) by each and every educator revealing this primary sequence to their students are these important lessons on the prickly path to growing up.

But how does following this structure lead makers to the legendary land of maturity? Let’s explore some intersections of social/emotional growth and the writing process:

1. Brainstorming: Dream Big

The first rule of brainstorming is that there are no wrong ideas. Messy, absurd and unrealistic ideas are as important as the predictable concepts. A painter brainstorms by creating a set of gesture drawings from a model, or water-color studies from photographs of Aunt Bebe.

What students learn from brainstorming is how to dream big, how to value their wild ideas as dearly as the familiar ones. This is one way to build compassion and self-respect.

2. Outlining: Balance Passion With Purpose

Life is a sequence of branching possibilities, and outlining allows students to practice the decision-making skills of choosing one route when each track appears equally compelling. Most of us are familiar with roman-numeral outlines favored by research papers. But, musicians follow a formal structure too when they make songs that follow the “verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus” arrangement.

Learning to merge all the adventurous possibilities articulated during brainstorming into a logical structure is a great way to prepare for this same scenario in work and home life. Outlining teaches students how to utilize both big picture thinking and the granular details that help manifest that thinking in the real world.

3. Drafting: Be Flexible

An outline might be clear in bullet form, but stop working once drafting begins. Drafting is when the dancers piece combos together, and the outline liberates students from drafting chronologically.

Dancers might choreograph steps for the closing segment first, and then arrange patterns of movement for the opening sequence last. The writing process teaches students to move between linear and nonlinear production.

Applied to the objective of maturity, this skill teaches writers how to navigate the often treacherous and commonly unpredictable dichotomy of vision and reality. Being flexible is key to equalizing creativity and output.

4. Revising: Continuously Improve

Most of us aspire for perfection, whether or not we are aware of this fantasy, thus many students harbor the attitude that revision is evidence of their poor character. On the other extreme is the student who will revise forever, never finishing their project.

Revision is an excellent laboratory for learning humility, self-awareness and resilience precisely because revision is the crucible in which we encounter our inevitable imperfections. The work of finishing a piece requires writers to balance external information, critical thinking and personal insight. And that sounds like a grown-up to me.

erin feldman, a native Louisianian exiled in western Massachusetts, is a writer and poet with almost 20 years of experience as a classroom educator and writing instructor. She is co-founder of Center Content, a boutique marketing and content creation agency serving businesses, nonprofits, and individuals. She is a proud teacher-consultant with the Western Massachusetts Writing Project.
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