Letting Them Drive: How to Help Students Through the Beautiful Messiness of the Writing Process

A few weeks ago at the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Annual Convention, I sat next to a teacher from Palmdale, California for an afternoon session. The teacher was buzzing with excitement as he told me the story of how he’d come to be there that day: His district, being local, had an extra ticket for the convention and raffled it off to anyone who threw their name in the hat, and he was the lucky winner. He admitted that he had never heard of the conference before and his expectations were low, as much of the professional development he’d encountered in his first six years in the classroom had underwhelmed. But the conference—the magic of being with 5,000 educators all trading ideas, stories, and inspiration—had him soaring, and he was already working out how to attend it again next year in Columbus.

This interaction made me think about what a shame it is that regular, paid trips to conventions and other forms of non-school/district professional development are not the norm in our field in the way that they are in many other fields. I am lucky to have a district that sometimes helps to pay my way and provide days off for opportunities like NCTE, but from what I can tell, this sort of support for outside professional development is the exception, not the rule. Most of the teachers I met at the conference paid their own way, and I met more than a few who even had to take personal days so they could attend.

The result of this lack of support when combined with the costs of the conventions—both financial and opportunity—makes it very hard for most teachers to attend, which in turn means that many educators go their entire careers without attending a single major convention. This is a shame because I believe that if every educator got to have an experience like that young teacher from Palmdale, our students and the profession as a whole would benefit greatly. 

Sadly, there isn’t much I can do to help more teachers attend such conventions beyond using my very modest soapbox to encourage administrators and curriculum coordinators to find ways to get your teachers out to conventions (any admins and coordinators reading this: There are few better ways to spend the dollars you oversee). So, since not everyone was able to go to NCTE this year, I thought that over the next few weeks, I would strive to bring the convention to others through a series of short “Greetings from Los Angeles” postcards over the next few weeks that share the most meaningful lessons I learned at NCTE. 

I was hoping to do this earlier, but it turns out that alongside inspirational pedagogy, respiratory viruses were also in the air, and one of the latter knocked me out for a solid couple weeks. But I’m feeling good again and excited to share today’s postcard, which comes from Sarah Zerwin, author of the book Point-Less, who I was lucky enough to sit on a panel with.

In her talk Dr. Zerwin made a point about writing that was profound, simple, and will shift how I think about writing instruction from here on out. Her point was that writing and the writing process are messy and so much of what often goes wrong when it comes to writing instruction is that we try to find ways to defeat the messiness: 

  • We give students frames and stems and five-paragraph formats to help them through the messy process of formulating and organizing an essay.
  • We break the writing process into clean and exact steps, each with its own due date, in an attempt to keep it orderly.
  • We create rubrics that seek to make writing clear by parsing it into boxes that one can check off. 

It is worth noting, before moving on, that frames and steps and rubrics are not inherently bad. I use all of them, and they can be helpful tools. If we are not careful though, students can get overly reliant on their concrete cleanliness, which can lead to formulaic writing, shallow thinking, and students struggling to write when a task asks for something more organic (see my interview with Jennifer Fletcher for more on this).

There have been any number of suggestions over the years for what to do with writing forms and formulas, and plenty of writing teachers over the years have made pronouncements about the important messiness of writing. Zerwin’s session though had some of the clearest thinking I’ve seen on the subject, so today I want to share what Zerwin had to say about how to support students through the beautiful mess that is the writing process.

Her solution revolved around two things:

  1. First, directly teaching students the steps of the writing process instead of simply asking them to follow them. This means teaching students why and how writers seek out others to read their work, discussing how writers will go out and seek mentor texts, and unpacking for them what revision often looks like.
  2. Then Zerwin creates a menu of sorts where the students get to choose and create their own approach to the paper. At any given moment they can engage in peer response, seeking mentor texts, asking for teacher feedback, or engaging in targeted revision. This allows them to (as Zerwin put it), get in the driver’s seat.

If this is a bit abstract, here is how I am applying this right now in my classes: This week my students are drafting essays on something we read during the first semester. Previously, my process for this essay would have been to set aside specific moments for each of these steps: Do peer response on Monday after the rough drafts are complete, engage in a targeted revision on Tuesday led by me, turn in a polished rough draft to me by Thursday, etc…

This year, based on Zerwin’s inspiration, I am going to try and let students “drive” more though by giving them the next week to use the checklist below (here is a link to it), instead of specific dates, to create their own process:

This approach might not feel that different than my previous this-step-comes-on-this-day approach, but there are a number of subtle shifts that I think might have a big impact: It empowers students with additional choice, asks them to be more active and metacognitive agents in their own writing process, and it frees me from having to micromanage those steps, which should save me time that I can then re-invest into conferencing, feedback, and working directly with students and their work!

Yours in teaching,


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3 responses to “Letting Them Drive: How to Help Students Through the Beautiful Messiness of the Writing Process”

  1. Hi Deb! I would love to talk with Deirdre, as her book looks wonderful! How wonderful that there is a restorative literacy just for the secondary classroom! Send her my email and we can chat (or I’d be happy to chat through you as well).

    We are making it through just fine, although there are lots of runny noses. Definitely better than last year. I hope all is well with you and your family well, and let’s catch up sometime soon!


  2. […] is the second in a series of postcards of my key takeaways from the National Teacher’s of English Conference in November. It also […]


  3. […] is the third and final of my reflections from the NCTE Convention. For the first two, click here and […]


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