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Thursday / December 8

Writing in the Deep End

I love the water and count my time by the pool as one of my favorite pastimes, but I am not a competitive swimmer.  Don’t get me wrong, I can swim. But I know very little about the individual specifications, rules, and regulations that competitive swimmers must pay close attention to, despite the fact that for the last decade, I have logged thousands of hours on a pool deck.  You see, my children actually are competitive swimmers and as a result, I have had many occasions to observe swimmers in a number of settings for a prolonged engagement.  Recently, I became an official for USA Swimming and have become certified as a Stroke and Turn Judge.  Basically, this means I am qualified to make calls on what is considered a legal swimming stroke.  I went to a class that was led by an instructor and have passed an assessment that focused on stroke specifications and rules.  By all accounts, I should be well equipped to serve in this official capacity as a swimming official.

Here’s the problem: My first time serving as an official judge, I realized I had NO idea what to look for.  Oh, I had a list of rules and specifics to observe, which in turn would cause a swimmer to get disqualified. However, my dilemma was that I was unsure of exactly what the words on that disqualification (DQ) slip meant.  I knew what all the words were, but I did not know what they meant or what the action looked like.  For example, one item on the slip said: “delay initiating arm pull.”  Seriously?  What in the world is THAT?  For me, they were simply words that described a process and activity that I had never actively experienced.  It wasn’t until I got one of my daughters to actually get in the pool with me; show me crossover turns, underwater recovery, and different kicks; and then subsequently have me perform these actions, that I even began to possess the most rudimentary understanding of each swimming technique.

How does this relate in any way to writing?  As I stood on the pool deck, totally confused, even with my rubric/checklist in front of me (that DQ slip), I realized that this is how so many students feel when we don’t model writing for them and even more crucially, don’t allow them the opportunities to actually DO the writing.  By all accounts, I should have been able to successfully serve as an effective stroke and turn official.  I attended the training, passed the assessment, and had the rubric in front of me.  Plus, I had logged countless hours in the setting, yet I still did not have a full understanding of the task that was in front of me.  You see, sometimes our students feel the same way.  Many young people have hours of classroom experience; they’ve been taught what particular genres require and they’ve been given a rubric that tells them what should be included, yet many still face the blank page with no idea of how or where to start simply because they have not had enough opportunities to practice and experience life as a writer.  In essence, it is simply sink or swim. And for many students, they sink, not because they don’t have the potential, but simply because they were thrown in the deep end on the first attempt.

Experience matters.  You see, just as some of the best USA Swimming Officials are those who were swimmers themselves because they have actual hands-on experience, some of the best writers are those who pick up a pen and write.  In order to master a skill, it must be practiced, refined, and honed in a number or settings, for a number of purposes, and it must involve active engagement.  Olympic swimmers didn’t just wake up one morning, decide to go for a swim, and qualify for Team USA.  Instead, they have spent years practicing, refining, and cultivating their technique.  Similarly, a kid who hasn’t written before likely won’t win a Pulitzer Prize the first time a pen is put in hand.

Swimmers need to swim to get better and writers need to write to improve.  How do we do this?  First of all, we wade into writing; we don’t simply plunge into the deep end.  Before we can even begin to talk about opening our papers with vignettes or anecdotal data, we must first master the art of crafting a basic introduction.  We wade into the water with quick writes and mentor texts that offer opportunities to practice writer’s craft and then we venture to the deep end, to the depths of argument and analysis and more complex writing tasks.

As teachers, how do we develop strong, confident writers who won’t sink, but swim?

  • Model, model, model the writing process. Modeling isn’t simply telling students what they should do: “Your topic sentence should…” but rather by showing them exactly how a sentence is crafted and constructed. Modeling the writing, but also the thinking that goes along with the construction of sentences and the careful placement of words is powerful.  Students need to see that writing can be hard and all writers struggle.  If I have learned one thing over the past few years of talking with writers, it’s that sometimes writing is HARD, but the only way to get better is by writing.  Even the best writers still struggle, but they keep treading water. They keep putting words on the paper.
  • Make the experiences count. Offer students opportunities to capitalize on what they know and have significant background knowledge about. We know that background knowledge is one of the greatest indicators of comprehension.  Writing about what we know helps build confidence because students are able to see their success in what they are writing.
  • Provide students opportunities to write often and for a variety of audiences and purposes. Practice and experience build proficient writers and also can help build confidence and stamina in students.
  • Read! Read! Read! Good writers are good readers and good readers are good writers. Why?  Because the two are interconnected and related.  Reading — whether independently, through read aloud in class, or in small groups — offers students additional experiences with author’s craft vivid language, voice, and more, which can then be transferred into their writings.

And while these simple suggestions can aid students in becoming better writers, I would be remiss if I didn’t say that of equal importance is the teacher’s willingness to swim with their students.  Write with them. Write for them. Write beside them.  Wade into the shallows of quick writes and written conversations.  Dip your toes into capturing the right word and voice for a piece. Jump into the deep end headfirst as you tackle argument, research, and character analyses alongside your students.

Trust me – it’s worth it.  Come on in, the water’s fine.

Written by

Rebecca G. Harper, Ph.D. is an associate professor of literacy at Augusta University.  She has served as an invited speaker and keynote for a variety of literacy conferences and has delivered literacy professional development sessions across the country. Her research interests include sociocultural theory and critical literacy and content and disciplinary literacy. She resides in Aiken, SC with her husband, Will, and children, Amelia, Macy Belle, and Vin. She is the author of Write Now & Write On.

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