Writing manifesto: Teach writing like it’s swim practice

When I was in high school, swimming was everything.  Practice eight times a week, meets on weekends, pictures of Summer Sanders and Pablo Morales taped to the back of my door.  My best friends–and every single date I had in high school–were all people I met swimming. I wasn’t Olympic material, but I gave swimming everything I had day after day after day.  

My coach was young and funny and pushed us to push ourselves. He taught us small, easy-to-make tweaks that paid off big time in races, and he often spoke dramatically as if delivering poolside Zen koans: “Pain” (dramatic pause) “is your friend” and “You are racing no one” (and emphasize each word here) “except the clock.”  

He set goals for us that were challenging, but just reachable. And if you bought in–and we all bought in–your times started dropping.  Yes, you were practicing harder; yes, you were reaching farther; but more than that, you cared. Swimming meant something to you. You really, really wanted to give your all, shave half a second off your 50-free time, your friends cheering wildly the entire time.

And something magical blossomed in this culture, which I knew at the time, but seems even more remarkable to me as an adult.

So while I haven’t swam competitively in decades, I still find myself returning to this question:  how can teaching writing be more like swim practice?

Get students to care.  If students care about what they’re writing, their work will rise to a whole new level.  Allow them to choose their topics, make bold arguments, take intellectual risks. Encourage assignments that ask students to connect to their own lives and experiences.  Teach them to write memoir and fiction and poetry, and teach these skills just as seriously as academic writing. If we assign formulaic essays, we will receive formulaic responses.  And it is the rare student who gets excited about the formulaic. Because once students care–and really care–everything changes.

Make writing a team sport.  Students must share. Often. Maybe it’s their best sentence, their favorite word.  Maybe it’s their title. Maybe it’s their best short, poppy sentence. Maybe it’s an entire piece. Reading aloud works, but it’s also anxiety-provoking for some students.  So also have students share by writing their best sentence on the board, or, even better, on an individual whiteboard.

Celebrate success.  We learn from what we do well.  When students read aloud, always give compliments and create a culture where students offer compliments too.   And occasionally sift through a stack of papers to pull out a sample of all-star sentences. Make a handout and read it aloud to the class.  Watch their confidence grow. Another strategy? Have students give each other Post-it compliments: students can walk around with a bunch of sticky notes and write compliments for essays scattered on tables throughout the room.  Individual whiteboards work well, too.

Play up the team aspect.  When work starts to feel overwhelming, find your inner motivational speaker.  Make pronouncements confidently and maybe even dramatically. Find your writing mantras.  A few favorites: Quality, not quantity; edit mercilessly; the best writing is specific; show your expertise; you’ve grown so much since September–what else can you accomplish?

Teach students specific skills they can use, and show them how to use them.  Demonstrate. Allow class time to write together while mastering specific skills.  Examples: explain the significance of an individual word, connect to a big-picture concept, use parallel structure.  Then, have students share out. Remember, celebrate success.

One thing at a time. You can’t work on your start, your flip turn, your kick and your breathing all at the same time. The same goes with with writing. Have students choose one weakness to address with each new assignment–and then have them master it.  Perhaps it’s the topic sentence, perhaps it’s verb use, perhaps it’s close reading. Frankly, it doesn’t matter what the weakness is, whether it’s a major weakness or a relatively minor one. Growth is growth is growth.  And sometimes mastering small weaknesses gives students the courage to tackle the overwhelming ones.

Don’t underestimate the power of practice.  Write often in low-stakes ways. Write as a class, all together.  Remind students of the ultimate goal: becoming stronger writers.  See earlier post: Lower the Stakes

Remember this:  success breeds success.  And one student’s enthusiasm can pull along two others, who each, in turn, pull along two more.  

So maybe, 20 years from now, a former student will take up lap swimming.  As she prepares to warm up, snapping on her goggles and peering anxiously at the other swimmers, she’ll ease herself into the water and think, If only learning how to swim were more like learning how to write.

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