A blank page and a lot of confusion.
Crumpled up attempts to get it right on the first try, struggling desperately to eloquently place thoughts upon the page.
Too often, students need prompts or formulas to get started because they've been trained into submission, learning not to trust themselves or their own ideas.
As young learners, we provide them with structures like the five-paragraph essay in order to help them understand organization. Unfortunately, once this crutch is put into place, students seldom abandon the aid.
The training wheels we provided students (with the best of intentions) as young learners become their undoing. They come to rely on them and then become afraid to take them off. It becomes easy and convenient to just do as they are told, afraid to be wrong, crippled by the choices we provide. The risk of failed creativity becomes paralyzing and so they do what they know.
So how do we teach kids to get started and abandon the formulas?
It starts by getting them to write informally as often as possible. Whether in a journal or a notebook or on a blog, kids need to be writing all of the time. Giving them ungraded opportunities to write and take risks until they find their voices, offers low stakes chances to see they can do it.
They must learn to trust themselves.
For students who can't get started, it's okay to provide open-ended prompts and allow them to do with it whatever they will. Over time, take the prompts away and allow them to free write often on whatever works for them.
Once writing becomes a part of their learning routine, then it's time to start asking them to write more formally. Not timed writing, but structured writing. Learning to decide on a structure based on the content is a skill that can be taught. Provide students lots of options and examples of different styles of writing. Ask them to read and evaluate what others have done until they find something that resonates with them.
Remind them that they can take bits and pieces of things they have read and learn to make it their own.
This is how we develop our voices over time.
When they say they don't know how to start, tell them to brainstorm first, then write an outline. Make sure they get all of the information on the page before they start writing paragraphs.
Students often put too much pressure on themselves to get it right that they fail to understand the purpose of the writing, to begin with. If there is no one right answer, then students can learn that their writing doesn't have to look any one particular way. If we are transparent about the purpose of each writing assessment, and we provide students multiple opportunities for formative feedback, that introductory paragraph won't be so daunting.
As we move away from the formulas, students need to remember that all writing is about saying something. First, they must be clear about what they want to say and then they can revise to say it more artfully. When engaging readers, they need to explore the connection that will draw an audience in (especially in academic writing) and go from there.
No writing is ever perfect. Even professional writers don't get it right the first time. It takes practice and attention and patience, like all learning. Let's teach kids the wonder of taking risks in their writing and embracing the growth that comes from that.
Revision is a practiced science, but writing is an art. So be creative when writing and then come back with a focused eye. Model these behaviors for your students. Share early drafts of your own work. Be transparent, so they can be.
What is the most challenging part of writing for you? Please share
*This post originally ran on my Education Week Teacher blog Work in Progress in December of 2014.