Four Conditions for Writing (and learning and creating in general)

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Earlier this week, I posted a short reflection on the blog about my experience creating a quiet space to write. Margaret Simon left a comment, a thoughtful response:

“I worry that if we go to distance learning in the fall, I will not be able to provide this space remotely. Conditions for creativity to happen are important to teaching writing.”

I concurred and also wondered if we would need to show students and families how to set up appropriate conditions for writing and learning in general.

Thinking more about my writing experience, I came up four conditions that were present and might also be applicable to classrooms next fall.

#1 - I (generally) knew what I needed to do.

The steps were somewhat laid out, such as the outline I created for the first chapter. I also had approximated how much I thought I could get done each day.

But there were no specifics in front of me, such as an exact word count or number of pages written. In fact, if I had assigned myself those targets, I think my writing would have suffered. I would have been trying to reach a goal instead of engage in the process. Writing’s hard enough without the added pressure.

What this might mean for the fall: I know some teachers are already preparing for the coming school year with the possibility in mind that instruction will still be from a distance. If they can develop some general ideas, such as the big ideas, essential questions, an authentic project per unit, and mentor texts/authors, that makes sense. However, to get too specific might inhibit student creativity. This is an opportunity to scale back our curriculum and allow for more student direction and ownership.

#2 - I committed time and resources to this project.

From Tuesday through Friday, I took vacation time to be able to commit to the writing. Our plates are already full as educators; something had to go to make room for this project. Also, I rented out a space from a local arts school that would ensure some privacy and control over my environment. Devoting time and money to this effort put me on the hook in a healthy way - positive self-accountability.

What this might mean for the fall: We put pressure on ourselves to make sure our students or teachers are engaged in learning. But shouldn’t they also have some “skin in the game”, an opportunity to commit their own time and resources? Obviously we aren’t asking kids to pay to learn (although it happens all the time in athletics). Yet how could we guide others to invest themselves in the learning process come fall? Maybe it’s as simple as fostering motivation through reading and discussing excellent literature until they cannot help but want to create something for themselves.

#3 - I had a meaningful task and purpose.

No one is telling me to engage in this writing project. If I wanted to drop it tomorrow, I could and no one would be terribly upset. Yet I know that if I didn’t write, the idea would gnaw at me until I decided to recommit to the project. The desire is internally motivating because I believe others will benefit once it is ready and published, in addition to the joy I find in a meaningful task.

What this might mean for the fall: If you are preparing for the fall and you are starting by looking at the standards, I urge you to take a step back and reassess. I don’t know what it was like in your school, but the students who went through the motions in our district, completing digital worksheets and assigned readings without meaning or purpose, became less engaged over time. They checked out. And wouldn’t you? We must start with purpose and consider what our students (and teachers) will find relevant in their learning this fall. Our curriculum has to be responsive.

#4 - I had permission to make mistakes.

I am a perfectionist at times. This tendency may be helpful when fine tuning craft, but when engaging in new learning (and writing always feels like new learning in a way), mistakes must happen. When I caught myself feeling stuck, I would tell myself to write something down coupled with a promise that I could delete it later if it didn’t work. I also used my paper journal to jot notes on, doodle, and scratch out prior ideas.

What this might mean for the fall: Our students or staff will need to hear repeatedly that mistakes are not only okay but are expected. We might even want to change our language around mistake-making, and instead call it “initial thinking” or “a previous draft”. If we can frame learning as a process instead of just a destination, it can help alleviate worry as we navigate these new educational waters.

Conclusion: What are we preparing for?

In the end, I will have a manuscript to turn into a publisher. Yet if I had gone into last week’s personal writing retreat thinking, “I need to produce a manuscript,” the experience would have been miserable. Instead, I attended to what I could do and wanted to do that day, while still holding the larger goal in mind. This involved developing appropriate conditions for myself as a writer as well as for writing. These ideas also seem to apply for learning and creating in general.

As we prepare for the fall:

  • Are we considering both student options and school goals?

  • Are we creating or modeling supportive spaces as well as healthy constraints?

  • Are we preparing for purpose in learning as well as procedures for teaching?

  • Are we balancing consistent expectations with opportunities for innovation?

  • Are we both consistent and flexible with timelines and time in general?

“Attention is the most basic form of love.”

- John Tarrant