Learning — and teaching — about writing is hard work

Mar 25 2022

Learning — and teaching — about writing is hard work

“So, Mr. Handmaker, are you going to write about our class in your blog?”
–Alex, 11th grade

What a fun couple of hours! Before high school English teacher Dr. Lawrence accompanied the sophomores to Tennessee for last week’s Outdoor Education trip, he asked Keystone Director of Strategic Marketing & Communications Edmund Tijerina and me to teach his junior classes one day. We eagerly leaped at the opportunity.

Mr. Tijerina and I planned a class focused on the writing and editing process by concentrating on this weekly blog. I would talk about how I come up with ideas and write the first draft, and he would discuss how to improve a piece while retaining a writer’s voice.

Because many of the students only know Mr. Tijerina from taking photographs, I asked him to share a bit about his background in journalism so the students would have a better understanding of his expertise. Having written for several newspapers and periodicals and publishing a book on food in San Antonio prepared Mr. T well for the variety of tasks he encounters in his work at Keystone, including writing the weekly Communiqué, updating the website, sending out press releases, and creating copy for marketing and advertising pieces.

Following Mr. Tijerina’s introduction, I shared the initial draft of last week’s blog with the students for them to edit. Truth be told, I was a little nervous since this was a very rough draft and typically, I only share this with Mr. T. We asked the students to read the blog and make comments, but I was definitely channeling an inner Brené Brown and showing my vulnerability.

As one would expect of our Cobras, their comments were spot on. Hazel kindly and pointedly asked, “what are you trying to say here? It feels like there are two different topics.” As much as it pained me, she was right. The organization needed work. In the other class, students critiqued sentence structure, phrasing, and word choice. When several students called me out for using the lame adjective “nice,” I completely agreed and we all laughed, even if it stung a bit.

At first, they were reluctant to comment but quickly moved past their hesitation. After we all tore into my writing, the juniors then moved to editing. They agreed with many of Mr. Tijerina’s changes, and even offered a few additional helpful tweaks. They agreed that the changes improved the piece.

Mr. Tijerina and I are still chuckling over one of the comments. Lorenzo saw a paragraph that he wanted to cut because it was redundant, but he hesitated to use a thick red pen on the Head of School, and was relieved when he saw that’s exactly what Mr. T did. Quipped Lorenzo: “I am glad you did that, and I applaud your gumption for taking out the whole paragraph.” We laughed and appreciated his gumption in pointing it out.

Beyond the humor and sheer joy we experienced in teaching the class, Mr. T and I hope the students take with them three crucial lessons:

First, the best way to improve one’s writing is to write and to read a lot. We explained that as disappointing as it may be, there’s no writing fairy out there who can wave a wand and sprinkle pixie dust magically making someone a better writer. It’s hard work and it requires practice.

Next, it’s crucial for students to find an editor. As much as we all try, it’s impossible to be objective about your own writing, so a second pair of eyes is crucial.

Lastly, we encouraged the students to think very carefully about who they choose as an editor. Writing can be extremely personal. It can be detrimental to have a close friend or family member serve as an editor; people should consider when asking someone whether the relationship can survive critical feedback. The writing and editing process is iterative and symbiotic. When it works well, it’s also rewarding, productive, and a lot of fun.

Whether our students will become professional writers, as some Keystone alumni have, or they simply need to express themselves clearly in memos and emails, the writing and thinking skills they learn here prove invaluable. We hear from alumni repeatedly how well-prepared they are as writers, and we applaud the work of their teachers in helping them with this foundational skill.

The combination of outstanding teachers and the students’ own commitment to excellence will allow our Cobras to understand as Dorothy Day said, “Writing is hard work. But if you want to become a writer you will become one. Nothing will stop you.”

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