How to Help Students Overcome Bad Writing Experiences

“It’s not me! It’s them!”

In the last post (Bad Writing Curriculum: Why Your Students Hate Writing) we explored how the curriculum itself can sometimes cause students to hate writing.

Many times, however, our students bring their own baggage with them. 

That baggage could come in the form of bad past experiences.

It’s like when you get bad service at a restaurant. What do you do? Give the waiters a hard time? Put them on blast on social media? And how do you feel if someone suggests you eat there again?

That’s what it’s like when students who have had bad past experiences with writing have to go to another writing class every year.

3 high school boys bored in backrow of writing class

What Causes Bad Writing Experiences?

  • BAD WRITING CURRICULUM used by the last teacher  (see my post about it)
  • THE PAST TEACHER’S TEACHING STYLE was not compatible with the student’s personality.
  • STUDENTS BRING THEIR OWN PROBLEMS with them…
    • Bad Attitude
    • Bad Work Ethic
    • Wrong Priorities

Now, we could go into a long discussion about “brain research” and talk about the limbic system and cerebral cortex…but I’m not an expert in that field of study. So here’s a link to the experts’ blog post “EDUCATING ANXIOUS BRAINS”: DIGGING DEEPER” if you want really want to learn about it.

So what  can you do about your students’ bad past experiences?

young male student writing in ooking at camera unhappy

How to help your students overcome bad writing experiences

The answer actually sounds very simple. But it is IN NO WAY simple.

GET THEM TO TRUST YOU ENOUGH TO GIVE YOU A CHANCE!

Step 1: HEAR THEM OUT! Give them a chance to vent their frustrations in writing in a healthy way. The older students get, the more they will appreciate when teachers allow them to voice their opinions.

(*IMPORTANT NOTE: Don’t be offended by what they say. When they’re complaining, they are not actually talking about you. They don’t know you yet. They don’t know the wonderful things you have in store for them.)

How I do it – An Example:

When I introduce myself as the writing teacher, I say, “After I tell you what subject I teach, I will give you 5 seconds to groan and complain.” I pause for effect before I confess, “I teach writing.”

Some students will complain just for the sake of complaining. Some won’t complain at all (bless their hearts!). But the ones who truly hate write will also have a chance to complain.

And that’s the point: to give the students WITH a strong dislike for writing a safe, controlled place to express their frustration.

I then have the student take a survey (which you can see here) where they can express how they feel about writing and why.

The point is to get your students to GET IT ALL OUT, so it is very important that you encourage them to be honest.

You want to give them this time to acknowledge where the problem is. This will help YOU to know how to solve the problem and help the STUDENT know when the problem has been solved or eliminated.

Step 2: EMPATHIZE! PROMISE A BETTER EXPERIENCE!

Say something like this…

“I know, guys. I hated writing for a long time too. But I’ve figured some things out as I got older that made me actually enjoy writing. And if you give me a chance, I’d like to share those things with you this year. That way, writing can be one less thing that you hate.”

student with bad attitude in class
Step 3: FOCUS ON THE STUDENTS WITH THE STRONGEST NEGATIVE FEELINGS
 
Your goal is to “convert” those students who hate writing the most because they will be your most influential students. They are likely the one most vocal about hating writing. So…when you DO change their opinions about writing, they will likely be the most vocal about that too. Those are the students whose changed opinions can change the opinions of the weaker naysayers in your class.

This is where you would implement some of the strategies from the next 3 posts:

        • Your “Purpose” Isn’t Good Enough for Your Students
        • You’re Not Making the Writing Experience “Gratifying” Enough
        • Your Students Lack the Skills and Discipline to Write Well

You have to be constantly aware of the changes students’ attitude toward writing. It can shift in seconds.

The moment you resemble one of their bad writing experiences, they will begin to change back into that student who hates writing. If something isn’t working, you need to change it as soon as possible.

Step 4: HAVE STUDENTS VERBALIZE THEIR CHANGE IN ATTITUDE

You’ve heard me say that I give the students a chance to complain and express their frustrations toward writing at the beginning of the year.

Well, throughout the year, especially when you notice that students’ attitudes (like those targeted naysayers) HAVE changed, it is important to have students recognize it.

How I do it – Some Examples:

      1. Celebrate successes in conferences or small groups: “Holy cow! Look at what you came up with! How’d you do that? So what do you think about writing now?”
      2. Formative surveys (like the one mentioned earlier).
      3. Generalize changes to the whole class: “These past few weeks, I’ve been seeing a lot of amazing writing and hearing a lot of amazing. I’ve also seen a bunch of you enjoying writing. WHAT? How did that happened?”

Conclusion:

Regardless of what our students have experienced in the past, there are ways to help them change the way they feel.

    1. Hear them out
    2. Empathize with them and promise a better experience this year
    3. Focus on “converting” the strongest naysayers
    4. And have student acknowledge and verbalize their change in attitude.

This is where you become the teacher that changes the rest of their lives. Can you imagine how a simple change in attitude could affect the rest of their schooling? If they can LIKE writing, then they will put more effort into it. If they put more effort into their writing, they will do it better. How many of their future classes will require writing? MOST OF THEM!

So helping them in writing this year doesn’t only affect their future writing classes. It can affect ALL OF THEIR CLASSES.

There aren’t many skills that transfer across content areas like writing does.

So go on! Change minds! Change FUTURES!

Tried it out?

Tried something else?

Leave me a comment and let me know how it went. I’d love to hear from you.

← Check out the main post: “Why Your Students Hate Writing”

On to the next post: “3 Tips for Making Engaging Writing Prompts”→

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