I was teaching storytelling last week at Miss Porter's School.
I sent the girls off for an hour to write and craft their stories, and when they returned, I asked them how they did.
"Not good at all," one of the girls said.
When I asked why, she explained that she spent the first 30 minutes just sitting there, trying to find the best way to start the story.
"Did you finally figure it out?" I asked.
"And how did that go?" I asked.
"Great," she replied. "The second half hour was great. I think I've got a good first draft. I kind of like it a lot."
"So then why did you say your hour didn't go well?" I asked.
"Well," she said. "I wasted that first 30 minutes."
"No, you didn't," I said. "Writers think. Storytellers think. Thinkers think. It's part of the process. It sounds to me like you did fantastic. You used that hour perfectly. Why would you think otherwise?"
The girl and her fellow classmates explained that just sitting and thinking without any doing is not tolerated by most of their teachers back home.
"You can't ever just sit and do nothing," one girl said.
Another told me that she is expected to "Think at the end of her pen," which apparently means that you must be writing even when all you'd like to do is take some time and organize your thoughts. Or brainstorm. Or just let your mind wanter a bit. It's an insane insistence that words be applied to a page at all times, absent of any mental preparation or inspiration.
"What idiot told you that thinking isn't a part of the writing process?" I demanded, instantly hoping she wouldn't say, "My mother."
She didn't. Instead, she said, "A lot of teachers."
This makes me crazy.
Please note: none of these students were actual Miss Porter's students. They were potentially future Miss Porter's students, but all had yet to enroll. They came from all over the country and the world, so this is not the unfortunate philosophy of any one school. Girls from Africa and Europe were nodding in agreement at the notion that "just thinking" is not allowed.
Can you imagine: Thinking is not allowed. Thinking is not a part of the writing process. Thinking is a waste of time.
Here is the real problem:
Not enough teachers write. Teachers require students to write persuasive essays, even though most teachers haven't written a persuasive essay in a decade or more. Teachers require students to write fiction, even though most teachers haven't written fiction since they were children. Teachers expect students to write research papers, when those teachers last wrote their own research paper in college.
When it comes to writing, we have an army of educators who are teaching something they never do. Even worse, in many cases, it's something they don't like to do. This would be akin to me trying to teach someone to play croquet or cook jambalaya or practice discretion.
If I never do it in real life, how am I expected to teach it to novices?
Sure, I could read a book about these topics, but would that really qualify me to teach any of those things?
Even worse, teachers learn how to teach writing from people who don't actually write, and if their instructors do write, they often only write books on how to teach writing.
See the insanity?
When I am asked by teachers, parents, and administrators how to improve their writing instruction, my answer is always simple, obvious, and annoying:
When you assign a writing assignment to your students, write it yourself as well.
Let your students see you writing.
Share your writing with your students.
Become the writer you expect your students to be.
When teachers (and parents) actively engage in the writing process, they begin to understand the writing process. They better predict where and when writers will stumble. They more accurately distinguish between effective and ineffective lessons and assignments. They understand the importance of choice and audience to a writer.
They know that thinking is a critical process of the writing process. They understand that sitting in front of the blank page, staring for long periods of time, is something that writers do.
Only a person who doesn't write would think that thinking is not a part of the writing process.
Only a teacher who doesn't write would make a student believe that thinking is a waste of time.