An Interview with Vicki Spandel, Developer of the Six Trait Writing Model
I had several great writing teachers in college. I’ve had several more great ones since. But no educator has taught me more about writing and the teaching of writing than Vicki Spandel. In 1996, I was fortunate to receive from her the full 5-day Six Traits certification training when she was working with the Northwest Regional Education Laboratory (NWREL). My writing and my teaching have never been the same since.
I imagine that Vicki’s work with the Six Traits has had a similar effect on millions of educators. If the concepts of ideas, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, and conventions have any meaning for you, Vicki’s work has touched your own. I even used the traits, in exactly that order, as the organizational structure for my book on writing, Be a Better Writer. You can learn more about the Six Traits at Vicki’s website, Six Trait Gurus.
Vicki has published over 40 books on writing and writing instruction including my personal favorite, The 9 Rights of Every Writer. Her most recent work, co-authored with award-winning writing, Sneed Collard, is Teaching Nonfiction Revision. It’s excellent, particularly in the way it offers a practical scope and sequence for revision, something I’ve never seen in a book on revision. I wrote an extensive chapter-by-chapter review of the book here.
Vicki is brilliant and honest, the best critique partner I’ve ever had, a wonderful mentor, and a dear friend. She seems always to have time for my questions. And when she doesn’t, somehow she finds it. She possesses an extraordinary generosity of spirit that graces all whose paths she crosses. She extends that generosity to all of us here in an interview packed with insight into the challenges of teaching writing.
Q: You recently published a book called “Teaching Nonfiction Revision”. You’ve written dozens of books on writing in your career. Why do you feel this topic is so important right now?
Teaching Nonfiction Revision (affectionately known as TNR) offered me a chance to deal with two topics I love: revision and nonfiction.
Revision is the heart of writing. I don’t think we’re even teaching writing if we don’t teach kids to revise. We’re merely assigning writing, which isn’t the same thing at all.
Unrevised writing is just first thoughts. Revision is where we get serious. When we revise our writing, we’re preparing it for readers. That’s when we ask revision questions like, Does this make sense? Is this the right word? Am I telling this in the best order?
I knew this was a timely topic because every time I worked with teachers through the years I’d ask, “What’s the hardest thing about writing to teach?” Almost to a person, they’d say revision.
Working on TNR with Sneed Collard offered me a chance to collaborate with someone who is a master of revision. Sneed is absolutely relentless about reworking his writing. He goes back and back again, sometimes slashing away, sometimes making changes as small as a single word.
Just as he advocates in the book, he reads his writing aloud to himself — more than once. Typically, he also shares what he’s written with a writing group — or in this case with me!
Sneed is tireless. Many times, he’ll come up with five, six, or more ways to write a single sentence. And he is forever asking — in fact, this became a joke while we were working together — Could I cut this? Could I make this shorter?
We got very competitive about hacking away at unneeded text and suggesting cuts in each other’s work!
As Teaching Nonfiction Revision came together, I realized it was evolving into just what I’d hoped it would be: a text that doesn’t just advocate revision, but actually shows students how to go about it.
The book is filled with countless examples that show precisely how to reorganize text, choose words that capture what you want to say, clarify your ideas, and write concisely.
It’s not a book of directions. We don’t need any more of those. It’s a book of models, a “Here let me show you” kind of book.
Our intention was to make the teaching of revision easier. Every decision we made, from content to organization, focused on making this a book teachers would love using in their classrooms.
Why nonfiction, though?
First, though Sneed writes a lot of fiction, he is primarily known for his great nonfiction, including his latest book Woodpeckers (which I recently reviewed on Six Trait Gurus). This doesn’t mean TNR isn’t useful for other genres. It’s for anyone who wants to teach revision well.
That said, I think that good nonfiction gets passed over too often in school. Teachers of writing may think kids get enough exposure to nonfiction in history and science or social science classes. They don’t, though.
When I tell people I love nonfiction, I’m not talking about encyclopedias, supplementals, or, God forbid, textbooks.
Writers of such works are under tremendous pressure to meet deadlines and to cram in a certain quota of factual information. There’s little incentive to write beautifully, to create books readers can’t put down, books with voice.
By contrast, the great nonfiction writers of our time, people like Carl Sagan, Joyce Sidman, Craig Childs, Mark Kurlansky, Nicola Davies, Bill Bryson, Bill Nye, Sy Montgomery, Gary Golio, Seymour Simon — I could name dozens — write in compelling ways about the universe, evolution, disappearing fish populations, survival, or (in the case of Nicola Davies), the tardigrade.
The toughest creature on Earth, the tardigrade can endure temperatures from a staggering 300º F down to absolute zero, or minus 459º F (Extreme Animals, 2006, 58). This is fascinating stuff.
Many students don’t even know these writers’ names. I’m betting we could change that in no time by sharing passages like this one from Sy Montgomery’s essay Great White Sharks:
On humans’ watch, we have decimated shark populations. We kill 100 million yearly. By 2050 we will have filled the sea with more plastic than fish. No wonder, then, that when that great white approached me in the shark cage, instead of fear, a great sense of calm swept over me. With him in charge, the ocean would be in good hands. (From Tamed and Untamed, Sy Montgomery and Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, 2017, 112)
Admittedly, fiction is seductive. Right now I’m deeply involved in a mystery series set in the time of King Henry VIII.
The Matthew Shardlake Tudor mystery series by C. J. Sansom is part history, part mystery, carefully researched, and filled with details about how people in the 1500s dressed, cooked, kept house, butchered animals, bathed (or didn’t), triggered religious revolutions, married at incredibly young ages, brought up their children (most of whom didn’t make it), treated disease (often killing the patient), and tortured one another in the name of justice.
But see? Even as I’m telling you this, I realize it’s the nonfiction details that draw me in.
Just imagine if we shared even a few pages of nonfiction a day with our students. Think what they’d learn!
And how painless it would be. No taking notes, no trying to recall dates for some dreaded test. Just people enjoying the pure pleasure of soaking up unforgettable information. What’s more, we’d be providing students with invaluable models of what their own nonfiction writing could be.
Q: One of the first things I noticed about Teaching Nonfiction Revision when I read it was how logically it was sequenced. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a logical progression of revision instruction; most books are just strategies. How did you and your co-author, Sneed B. Collard, decide on this approach?
Thank you for noticing that. It’s something we’re really proud of.
My friend, Jeff Hicks, a veteran teacher and one of the best writing instructors (and writers) I’ve ever known, made the same comment.
He said he could see himself using the table of contents as a guide for teaching revision over the course of the year — not necessarily covering every chapter (and we never intended that), but going through them systematically so kids would see that you start big with your overall message, and eventually work your way down to little things like the words you’ve chosen.
This approach makes revision manageable, even for kids who aren’t experienced revisers.
Ultimately, we chose this approach because it’s how Sneed revises his own award-winning books. Big to small. Simple. TNR is the answer for kids who ask, How do I begin revising? What do I do first?
Revision can feel overwhelming to a beginning writer. I think it’s one of the main reasons many kids don’t revise at all. They don’t know what to do other than making the draft longer or neater. Plus, they can’t face going back for another look.
I liken it to stepping on the scale after a weekend of bingeing. Who can bear to look? But suppose we could give students a step-by-step way of going about revising, and make that first step an easy one. What if we could make it clear what to do next and after that, and finally how to wrap things up?
Students might become so confident they’d dare to scrutinize their writing under a bright light with a magnifying glass, knowing they could handle whatever might be lurking there. Intrepid adventurers always make the best revisers.
Q: Some people might find it challenging to have two authors working on the same book. How did you strike a balance? And could you talk a little about the process itself — how you managed to work together to come up with a book you were both happy with?
Let me say right off that I could not have done this book with just anyone. One of my past co-authors literally didn’t want to do any revising. Guess where that left me?
I also had an eager beaver co-author who insisted on publishing after one quick round one of revision. I was horrified, but she was unstoppable. To me, that was like wearing a shirt you just pulled out of the washing machine without bothering to dry or iron it.
I knew this experience would be different. Sneed is, of course, a gifted writer. But in addition, he is — as I joke in the book — obsessive about revision. He probably dreams about it.
We found a good balance from the beginning.
Sneed shared, chapter by chapter, actual revision strategies he uses. Many of these are directly adaptable for teaching in the classroom. Especially if you’re a teacher who likes to model revision.
My job was ensuring that the book was teacher-friendly. I added writing activities, suggestions, ideas for conferring one-on-one, writing secrets to share with students, and more. Every time you see one of those light gray “in the classroom boxes,” that’s me talking.
Our process was so successful, and so much fun, that I literally wanted to write another book just about that: Team Revision 101.
Sneed would write a chapter and send it to me for review. I didn’t do any editing — just made margin comments about parts I felt could use clarification or expansion. In addition, I’d add my classroom segments.
When I sent everything back to him, he’d read through my comments, responding to those he found helpful, and spitting on those he didn’t (just kidding). Then he’d go through my work and offer comments of his own. We’d go back and forth like this until we were both happy.
Having a partner speeds up the revision process enormously (two heads and all that). Plus it’s wonderfully engaging. I never had so much fun revising in my life. I couldn’t wait to open my email every day to see if there was feedback from Sneed on my latest “installment.”
Imagine if kids in classrooms could work on revision with partners? Can you even think how much they would learn, both from writing and from reviewing? And how much they would enjoy revision?
The feedback is immediate. Kids love that, and it’s impossible for one teacher to provide that kind of quick response to thirty, sixty, or more kids.
If you’re wondering whether kids are still working independently, don’t worry about that.
You’re not taking direction from the other person; you are still fully responsible for your own writing. But each day, you see the impact your writing has on someone else.
You begin to see your writing through their eyes. You begin to anticipate their responses, and — voila! — you’re writing to be read. There’s no better way to improve both drafting and revision skills.
Q: Beginning with your work in 1984 leading the team that developed the Six Traits, you’ve had a career focus on revision in writing. Were the traits one reason for that passion?
Oh, absolutely. The link between the six traits and revision seems overwhelmingly obvious now, though it wasn’t always so. The traits were originally intended as a model for assessment.
The Beaverton School District wanted a better way to assess writing. They wanted a language that would speak to teachers, parents, students, everyone. And they wanted a way of identifying the strengths or weaknesses in a given piece of writing.
You can’t just hand a student a paper with a score of 3. What does that mean? Great ideas but weak spelling? Or fantastic conventions but fuzzy thinking? No one ever knew.
Then along came the traits with individual scores for ideas, organization, voice, word choice, and conventions. Now, students could see precisely where their writing was strongest. Teachers could see where students were struggling and know what kids needed to improve.
What I first loved about working with the traits (in district and state assessments) was this whole new way of seeing writing. We weren’t just identifying problems, but noticing things writers were doing well. We were turning assessment on its head!
Over and over we’d come across a paper where conventions were so weak that just decoding the piece was a challenge, yet the student wrote with such voice, such power, that raters on the team would plead to hear it read aloud.
I could imagine many of those kids routinely receiving low grades on their written work because of mechanical errors.
Think what a surprise it must have been when they pulled down the highest scores possible for ideas, voice, and word choice. What a shock to learn that even though you struggle with conventional basics, your voice, your words can hold a room of forty teachers riveted.
Then came the link to revision.
One morning an ingenious teacher named Ronda Woodruff (who was also a member of our rating team for the district) announced to the group, “You know — I’m sitting here scoring these papers, and I’m learning how to write.”
“You know what these traits are? They’re a blueprint for revision. These are the things writers do when they revise: add detail, write stronger leads, change the wording. What if we taught these traits to kids? Wouldn’t they get what revision was all about?”
The answer had been right there in front of us — and from that moment my workshops, my writing, everything changed.
Teaching traits to kids worked so well, in fact, that we couldn’t believe how quickly the students caught on. They were better at identifying strengths and problems than we adults were. And they applied everything they learned to their own writing.
Kids in Ronda’s class (where I got to work with her) begged — literally begged — to assess more and more and more writing samples. They couldn’t get enough.
They loved disagreeing with one another on scores because it gave them an opportunity to make an argument in defense of one score versus another. How many lessons do you see embedded in that practice?
I should add, though — because not everyone makes this leap — you can’t just hand kids rubrics and look on expecting magic to happen. Students have to go through the same process we do. They have to read and discuss many writing samples, something they don’t normally get the chance to do.
Teachers take home countless papers on Friday nights. Students take only their own. As teachers, we don’t necessarily recognize how much we learn about writing by reading and assessing students’ work. We’re too close to it.
Assessment — I don’t mean just scoring, but reviewing, analyzing, and discussing — is a writing education in itself.
But we didn’t just focus on assessing other students’ writing. We soon learned that students are equally adept at reviewing newspaper articles, advertisements, movie reviews, editorials, or excerpts from literature or textbooks. “This has no voice,” one boy told me while assessing a paragraph from his history book. “That’s why it takes us so long to read it.”
Why does all this matter? It matters because students are capable of writing not just adequately, but brilliantly if they have the power of revision on their side.
Teaching revision isn’t just about getting kids ready to take a college entrance test or create a solid resume. It’s about preparing them to change the world.
Q: Six Traits has been used in one form or another in all 50 states for more than 20 years, and has been one of the most influential contributions to American writing curriculum and assessment. What do you think made it so successful?
I think the reason the traits took off with such incredible force is that they were developed by teachers, not assessment specialists or testing companies.
The traits were and are very grass roots. They spoke to educators. When I taught six-trait workshops, I would repeatedly see it in teachers’ faces — that look that says, “I get this.”
As one teacher told me, “This is all so familiar — it’s what I already teach. But now it’s organized. Now I have names for things — like voice!”
Having words to describe what you see in writing makes everything from modeling to conferring to assessment easier.
What kept the traits popular, though, was their power to support revision.
Most teachers aren’t looking for a better way to assess; they’re looking for a better way to teach. Imagine what it means to a writing teacher when her students get excited about revision.
Imagine listening to students assess and discuss a piece of writing and commenting on the effective (or missing) detail, the easy to follow (or confusing) organization, the moving (or absent) voice, the precise (or misleading) word choice.
I’ve had more than one teacher say to me, “I had no idea how much my kids knew about writing — their comments were so insightful it was stunning.”
The rubrics themselves have, unfortunately, sometimes been a stumbling block for a few teachers who’ve found them restrictive. They felt they couldn’t say what they wanted to say to students in conference or through written comments because all the “accepted” language was contained in the rubrics.
This is, of course, absurd.
Rubrics help us get our heads around complicated concepts like ideas or voice, but our personal definitions of such things evolve throughout a lifetime of reading, writing, and thinking.
A rubric expresses what we value at a given moment in time. Sharing those values with students is a way of keeping assessment honest.
The language of the rubric, however, cannot put limits on what we say — or think. And certainly it can never take the place of a teacher’s personal comments, which every student longs to hear.
I’ve heard of teachers having kids memorize rubrics. That makes no sense to me. I’ve worked with rubrics for thirty years and I couldn’t quote a single line. It isn’t the specific words that matter — it’s the concepts behind those words.
What do we mean by good ideas? Or logical organization? Or strong voice? We want kids to know these concepts so well they can define them in their own words.
When you take your pinging car to a mechanic, you’re happy if he consults a manual, but you don’t want him to give your car a score of 3 and hand the keys back. You want him to understand the manual so well that he can figure out exactly what’s wrong and get your car running smoothly again.
A rubric is like that auto mechanic’s manual. A guide, an introduction, a starting point — to which you must add your own experience as a writer and reader.
Once students truly understand ideas, organization, voice — all of it — they can say something like, “Wow, I have a killer lead. But I’m not giving readers enough details about black holes. I’m repeating myself and my ending is weak.”
You can certainly teach revision without ever using a rubric. But can you teach it without touching on the concepts of ideas, organization, word choice, and the rest? That would be hard.
Giving students concepts they can use to be powerful revisers has been the finest contribution of the six traits to the world of writing.
Q: From the early 1980s to the present day, you’ve had a front-row seat for the development of writing instruction in America. How have things gone? What do we need to do now? And where do you think we need to be with writing in 25 years?
These are big questions for one person to answer, so I hope you’re planning to put them to others as well! But I’m happy to share a few thoughts.
Thanks to the groundbreaking research of Donald Graves and others, most teachers now view writing as a process or combination of processes (including planning, researching, and revising), and encourage students to go well beyond initial drafts. As a result, classroom practices have changed markedly in the last two decades.
Students routinely write in class now (something unheard of at one time), participate in writing workshop, confer regularly with teachers, and work with response groups of their peers.
Outstanding teachers like Katie Wood Ray (who has been my hero for years) have shown us how to use fine literature (mentor texts) to model what writing can be and to expand students’ repertoire of writing possibilities.
Reading and writing are connected as never before.
Thanks to Tom Romano, we have a renewed appreciation for voice and for writing about things that matter deeply to us. And Anne Lamott, bless her, has given us the courage to be blatantly honest in our writing (critics be damned) and not wring our hands over first drafts. There’s much to feel good about.
On the other hand…
Large-scale writing assessment has never taken these precious lessons of the classroom seriously. It dances around the notion of serious assessment without actually doing much to promote good writing instruction.
This has been a disappointment to me since I worked on state and district assessments in the 80s and early 90s where teachers, and teachers alone, were allowed to be raters. Students were often given prompts well in advance so they could reflect before writing, and whole class periods were devoted to revision.
Can you even imagine this today?
As readers, we spent hours reading and discussing student samples before we ever put a score on anything, just trying to reach group consensus about the things we valued. During the scoring, we frequently took time to read and celebrate outstanding samples of writing, reminding ourselves how much we treasured voice and individuality.
Even then, the press was reporting that students couldn’t write. But we knew better.
Kids were dazzling us every day. We refused to penalize students who wandered from the assigned topic because we felt they were demonstrating, often quite brilliantly, how to write your way out of a prompt that was at best mundane and uninspiring.
Those days are long gone, and I don’t see any motivation to return to practices that once upon a time made district and state writing assessment a worthwhile endeavor — and let me add, an experience teachers lined up to participate in.
In addition, I wonder at times if we care as deeply about writing instruction as we ought to.
Certainly classroom practice has changed markedly for the better. In addition, it’s always encouraging to me when districts and individual schools decide to formally emphasize writing.
Unfortunately, that commitment is often about as stable as the weather. Somehow it seems hard to keep a laser focus on writing while increasing our emphasis on math and science — or whatever. Why?
Writing ought to be, I think, a special case because like reading, it isn’t about content. It’s about process. When we teach writing we’re teaching thinking. They’re inextricably bound.
When you write, you are forced to confront your thoughts in black and white, then refine them until what’s on the page matches what’s in your head. The very act of writing prepares you to learn and understand other things — including math, science, history, or any curriculum you might want to tackle.
My hope for the future would be that we’d once and for all place a high value on writing instruction and keep that commitment to ourselves and our students.
We never say, “Well, reading doesn’t matter that much anymore. It’s math that matters nowadays.” Just saying it sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?
We value reading no matter what. Let’s give writing the same status.
We also need to value our teachers more and encourage them to value themselves.
The secret to successful writing instruction lies ultimately, I believe, with teachers, not with some new program or set of standards or curriculum.
Such things can provide support and direction, but a teacher’s personal approach matters infinitely more than any strategy or set of guidelines.
If you’re a teacher of writing reading this, please know how incredibly important you are — just you. Books and programs and standards aside, your words, your attitude, your commitment to writing, these matter more than anything else.
Students can sense a teacher’s overall enthusiasm for writing — and it’s contagious.
Does she (or he) like to write? Does she share her writing with students? Is she passionate about reading, and does she read favorite pieces aloud to students — even at high school level?
Does she comment on things she loves about favorite writers — the way Sy Montgomery uses language or creates images that simply take your breath away? The way Nicola Davies finds humor in everyday science? The way Michio Kaku makes physics understandable even to those of us who have little background in that area? The way Sneed Collard gracefully blends informational writing with drama?
And finally, does she receive students’ writing as a gift, as if she can’t wait to see what they’ve come up with this time? Books and programs come and go. The impact of a caring teacher is eternal.
I suspect my utopian world of writing — the world I’d like to see in 25 years — is much like that of other people who love writing and teachers of writing. But here are a few things that would definitely be part of my ideal world:
- More staff development for writing teacher based on things they themselves identify as priorities — such as modeling, for example, or teaching revision well.
- Additional pay and graduate credit for participation in study groups where teachers could talk with one another about the best professional texts of our time, thereby keeping up with new research and practice.
- More opportunities for teachers to observe and learn from one another. Teachers are usually far more talented than they realize. They need to see one another in action.
- More class time dedicated to writing, so that teachers would not feel constantly rushed, and so they would have time for conferences, for reading aloud, and for the things we know support good writing instruction. You simply cannot teach writing in fifteen or twenty minutes a day, no matter how clever or organized you are. Writers need to write. Every day. Extensively.
- More opportunities for students to write in science, math, history, and social science classes. Such writing need not be assessed in the same way a writing teacher might assess it. Many pieces, such as “A question I had today,” “Something I’d like to know more about,” or “The most important thing I learned today” can be completed in a few minutes and need no assessment whatsoever. For longer pieces — such as summaries, lab reports, biographies, or evaluations — content teachers can look beyond mechanics to check for things they value, such as a clear message, logical organization, understanding of information presented in class, or innovative thinking. The point is to build more writing time into a student’s day.
- Much, much more emphasis on revision as an in-class activity, not just an expectation for something that students will do on their own time, if at all. Students need the opportunity to ask questions and to share writing as they are revising.
- A paradigm shift in the way we view teachers, so that we would finally acknowledge them as the professionals they are. This would mean not only an awakening in attitude, but significant increases in pay as well.
- Acknowledgement of narrative writing as a legitimate and important form, requiring sophisticated skills, not just recall of personal experiences. Writing stories is often viewed as something we grow out of as we mature, when nothing could be further from the truth. Storytelling is part of our heritage as humans. And actually, narrative — when it’s well done — is the most difficult of all writing forms to master. You cannot fall back on lists or summaries, facts or definitions. Narrative organization is rarely straightforward. It’s often multi-faceted, with several plot lines unfolding at once. You have to come up with an ending that is simultaneously inevitable and yet surprising. You need to create authentic characters that elicit empathy, conflict that drives plot, and a sensory-detail-rich setting that fosters mood. These things are extraordinarily hard, and we belittle this magical genre by casually tossing students ridiculous writing prompts like “Write about a day you’ll never forget.” Who are we to decide what stories our students need to tell? And why do we want to read hundreds (or thousands) of “special day” stories anyway, when every story could be unique? What’s more, the whole idea of “story” is an integral part of any good informational or persuasive piece, and should be taught as such. We need to stop this nonsense of isolating genres as if they were mutually exclusive. How confusing this must seem to student writers who read voraciously and see every day that when it comes to genre, exclusivity is a myth.
Q: My favorite book of yours is The 9 Rights of Every Writer. In my opinion, it’s one of the clearest, strongest, and most direct discussions of the foundational elements of writing instruction. What do you think is so important about writing instruction for kids that you defined these foundational elements as “rights”? That’s an unusual way of thinking about how kids should be educated. It’s also a way that I don’t think we’ve ever aspired to in this country. In your mind, what gives kids “the right to write”?
Thank you for liking the book so much. That means a great deal to me.
I’ve had many people tell me it’s their favorite of my books, so it’s probably not surprising that — except for this newest book! — it’s my favorite too. I poured my very heart into 9 Rights. It all started when I read another book given to me by — who else? — a teacher.
One chapter in that book influenced the way I viewed assessment forever.
In it, the writer describes his end-of-term writing assessments, quoting various teachers’ comments that will make your hair stand on end. I have often shared these comments aloud in writing workshops, and the effect is always the same as if we’d been watching a horror movie together:
- “I have never met a boy who so persistently writes the exact opposite of what he means. He seems incapable of marshaling his thoughts on paper.”
- “A persistent muddler. Vocabulary negligible. Sentences mal-constructed. He reminds me of a camel.”
- “This boy is an indolent and illiterate member of the class.”
- “Consistently idle. Ideas limited.”
So many things are wrong with this type of assessment it’s hard to know where to begin.
It’s mean-spirited. It focuses on the student, not the work. It’s arrogant, opinionated, biased, unsupported by evidence, and designed to destroy the student’s confidence, not offer a path to success.
I could go on with this critique for hours, but like the teachers in my classes, you are probably dying to find out who this persistent muddler with the limited ideas actually is.
You may be surprised to learn it’s none other than the beloved Roald Dahl, author of Matilda, The BFG, The Twits, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and many other favorites. This tale is from The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More, originally published in 1945 (1977 edition by the Penguin Group, quotations from pages 187–188).
Teachers are always shocked to think someone would write this way about Roald Dahl, but to me it just proves that many assessments are so geared toward finding fault that there’s no time left for noticing brilliance. We never know when we might have a Roald Dahl, Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan, Nicola Davies, Sy Montgomery — or Sneed Collard — in our own classroom.
I couldn’t get Dahl’s story out of my head, and it seemed to me that such assessment wasn’t just inept and ineffective, but simply wrong on so many levels.
Certainly it’s unethical to make flippant, unkind comments at a student’s expense. In addition though, every time we fail to notice what’s going well in our students’ work, we lose an invaluable and irretrievable opportunity to encourage a future author.
Surely students — who are the very reason our educational system exists — have a right to be treated more courteously and professionally than this. Being young ought not to negate a person’s human rights.
What constitutes good and fair assessment? I spent some time working out my answer to that question, and the result turned into the first chapter I wrote — not the first in the book, but my first. This writing got me thinking about other things that matter. And so, eventually, the 9 Rights also included the right to
- Find personally important topics.
- Go off-topic, following wherever your personal thinking leads.
- Personalize writing process so it fits your individual way of working.
- Write “badly” for a time so you can explore — as writers should — before you revise.
- Observe other writers, notably the teacher, at work.
- Go beyond formula — which seems on the surface helpful, but which is perhaps the single most destructive thing we impose on student writers.
- Find your own voice.
These are simple things, but they matter enormously. They can make the difference between writing instruction that simply fills time and instruction that frees students to become the finest writers they can be.
Where does the concept of “rights” come from? Respect.
If we respect students, we see them not only as learners, but as fellow writers, part of a community of writers who exchange ideas, listen to one another’s writing, offer suggestions, and provide support.
Together, we solve writing problems. That’s our mutual task. We also hold high expectations for one another. We never underestimate people we respect.
Too often we grossly underestimate what students can do, and for this reason we’re eager to hand them formulas — thesis and three supporting points comes to mind — as a crutch, thinking we’re doing them a kindness.
If we truly think they can’t succeed without filling in the blanks, students will also think themselves incapable of more.
Fear of failure can only hold students back. We don’t want this.
Fearless students are capable of shocking, enlightening, entertaining, and moving us with their writing, and we should expect nothing less.
The final chapter in the book deals with a writer’s right to find her own voice. That was deliberate. Everything we do in writing leads to this.
Why does voice matter so much? Because as teachers, and indeed as human beings, we love to read. We only read for two reasons if you think about it: Either we need the information or we love the writing. In all the years I’ve spent reading and sharing thousands of student papers, this has hit me time and again.
The gifted editors invariably impressed us with their finely tuned conventions. After all, the difference between “Let’s eat, Grandma” and “Let’s eat Grandma” does matter. But it was those students who wrote with voice that held us spellbound. Acknowledging and encouraging a writer’s voice is the ultimate form of respect. Why?
Voice is more than personality, cleverness, humor, originality, or individuality. Voice is who we are: everything we come from, our ethnicity, our home, our background, experiences, beliefs, passions, values, successes, and struggles all blend to create the voice that is uniquely ours.
We don’t teach voice so much as we allow it to flourish by simply getting the heck out of the way.
How do we do this? By letting students write about things that matter to them, by encouraging diversity in genre and style, by providing serious time for students to research, write, share, and revise, by sharing our own work and process — including the parts that aren’t going so well — and by assuring students they are far, far too talented to waste their precious writing time with formulas.
Respecting voice is a way of saying, “You are important. I will listen to you and hear the meaning in your words. How you see the world matters to me because you have things to say I can hear from no one else.”
NOTE: I want to thank Vicki for the time and effort she gave to this interview. It’s not often we get so much detailed information and insightful commentary from great educators outside of the books they write.