Delaware Writing Project

A Space and Place for Low-Stakes Writing

By Elizabeth Tedrick

Imagine being told that you had to compose an essay in fifty minutes that would significantly influence your evaluator’s assessment of your job performance. Imagine knowing the basics of essay composition, but not the subtleties of the craft. Imagine worrying that what you have to say isn’t worthwhile, or won’t be written well enough to be understood. As you set your pencil to begin, all of these doubts weigh you down, and you struggle to compose something meaningful and readable. This scenario is not all that different from what many of our students face when they are told to write. We tell them over and over how important writing is. We stress the high stakes of the essays they compose. And in this time of constant assessment and evaluation, who can blame us? We want our students to do well, but sometimes, despite our best intentions and efforts, they don’t do well because they simply haven’t had enough practice in places that don’t matter.

In A Writer Teaches Writing (2004), Donald Murray states “Much of the bad writing we read from inexperienced writers is the direct result of writing before they are ready to write” (17).   There are so few low-stakes writing opportunities, especially at the secondary level, where students get to play with language. We need to provide students with the space and place to ready themselves to write, to overcome their fears that they are going to fall short due to a lack of practice and skill. Where can they do this?

In third grade, my teacher awarded me “Best Writer” of my class. At first, I was disappointed to learn that “Best Writer” didn’t mean I had the prettiest handwriting, but then I understood that what it really meant was way cooler. Around fourth grade, I started keeping a journal, and kept it up for a good ten years. What started as a 50-leaf, spiral bound, wide-ruled notebook with a homemade, bejeweled cover glued to the front eventually turned into seven sleek, Mead Five Star 9 ½ x 6 Two-Subject notebooks with friendship bracelet tassels attached to the wire binding. I thought of my journal as one of my best friends and closest confidantes. I would write embarrassingly cheesy salutations to it, such as “Greetings, Journal! How goes the day?” or “Oh Dearest Journal! How long it’s been since I last wrote! You’ll forgive me, won’t you, old friend?” I mostly wrote about the events of my daily life: drama at school, excitement for holidays, bragging about my good grades, pouting over unrequited love – but within these accounts, deeper musings emerged. Why do bad things happen to good people? Is it normal for families to fight and fall out? When will I stop caring about what other people think? In capturing my routine life, I was able to arrive at authentic, meaningful, and universal questions that demanded deep thinking. On top of this, I never had a problem writing in school. I was never afraid to start an assignment, or worried that I wouldn’t have anything to say, because I had carved out a space and place to play with language as I grew up.

This could be a place to start with students, who often need to “write before they write” (Gallagher 30). To play with language and prepare for those high-stakes moments, encourage students to write their life. A simple journal (bejeweled cover optional) could provide the foundation for years of writing confidence. My band teacher used to tell us to make mistakes. He would rather us make a mistake than not play anything at all. And if we were going to make a mistake, make it loud and proud – that way, we would learn not to make the same mistake again. When students write for and of themselves, the mistakes they make don’t weigh them down and paralyze them the way they might on a school assignment. Of course, the need for correction and learning from one’s mistakes must exist in order for improvement to occur, but that’s what teachers and classrooms are for.

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About the Author

Elizabeth Tedrick is a graduate of the University of Delaware with a Bachelor of Arts in English and Music, and Towson University with a Master of Secondary Education.  She currently works for the Brandywine School District at her alma mater, Mount Pleasant High School, where she primarily teaches 10th and 12th grade language and literature courses for the International Baccalaureate Programme.  Elizabeth enjoys writing instruction and is a member of the Delaware Writing Project community.  It is her goal to engage students in authentic and relevant lessons in English/Language Arts, thereby preparing them to enter the world as independent, critical thinkers.

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