BY KELLY WILLIAMS
In the world of project-based learning, prototypes are necessary for success. This is one of the most important steps in designing curriculum because it allows for the teacher to understand timing, scaffolding needs, and establish clear expectations. Many teachers are on board when it comes to creating a physical product whether it is building a model in engineering class, producing an animation in multimedia class, or creating a painting in art class. However, when it comes to Humanities, why do teachers tend to shy away from prototypes of writing? Perhaps because it is a long, sometimes tedious undertaking. Perhaps because our inner critic never believes our writing is good enough. Perhaps because writing is just plain difficult. No matter the reason, it is one of the most important models teachers can provide. I discovered this when partnered with Jeff Robin, a senior art teacher and project-based learning expert, through our 2013 project, The New Path of the Buddha.
It was painstaking. That judgmental, LOUD inner voice just would not seem to go away. This has to be the best writing you’ve ever done. All of your students and your teaching partner will judge you. You’re supposed to be the expert. These thoughts circulated as I attempted to write a short fiction piece about Sidney Allen, an upper-class school girl turned punk rocker in 1970s London. My narrative was to be the model for my seniors’ spring semester project, which entailed students taking Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha and reimagining it in a new time and place. My teaching partner, Jeff Robin [Art], had already created the storyboard images, and now it was my job to make the images come to life with words.
I wrote feeling a combination of anxiety and joy. It had been years since I had written a long creative piece, so it was fun to climb inside the head of the characters and imagine the various scenes. However, I was anxious. That inner voice kept rearing its ugly head making me overly critical of each sentence. I lost count of how many times I re-read my opening or asked my poor husband what he thought of whatever paragraph I was muddling through. Normally, I write with abandon and then spend an exorbitant amount of time revising, but for some reason, I nit-picked desperately, needing each sentence to be perfect.
Four 8-hour weekend days plus the weeknights in between and I was finally ready to show the story to Jeff. I made sure he knew that it was still “a work in progress,” not so much because of my belief that writing is never done but because I wanted to give a disclaimer in case it wasn’t up to par.
Jeff read the story and said he was impressed. This brought some relief so that when he offered some revisions I felt less like crouching in the corner ashamed at calling myself an English teacher. He laughed at the inconsistencies in the story. I had Sidney eating pizza after a concert when fish and chips would have been the more accurate late night London choice. I had just had a baby, so for my pregnant protagonist, I wrote detailed scenes of doctor appointments, the length of the pregnancy, and the baby’s weight and height. My experience was so fresh, yet I failed to realize that this type of detail was unnecessary for the purposes of our story. I made these and other necessary changes before the true test of my work—presenting it to the students.
Before distributing copies of “Sidney Allen” to my students, I told them of my anxiety. I told them how personal writing is and how difficult it is knowing that someone is going to judge your work. I also gave them my disclaimer. “Keep in mind that it’s still a work in progress. I’d love your feedback,” I announced. Students then read and annotated the story for warm and cool feedback as I fretfully waited. Teenagers are so honest, which is great for feedback but sometimes hard on the ego.
As expected, the students provided insightful feedback. Delicately, they told me my dialogue needed to be more accurate to the character and the ending seemed rushed, but the students liked my description and overall storyline. The best part was that during this feedback, I was able to discuss my writing process candidly. I told them how I am typically a verbose writer and how it was difficult knowing when to expand and condense. I told them how the storyboard images really helped because I could focus on the description rather than determining the plot. I told them how it was difficult to get started, but once I did, I really enjoyed the process and hoped they had a similar experience.
I had always bought into the idea of doing the project yourself and had always provided models for my students in previous years. However, in the past, I used writing models I had collected from former students or wrote the shorter writing models myself. For instance, I created a 6-word memoir model, a 55-word fiction model, a one-page memoir—basically, I wrote anything I could complete during my prep period. With Jeff being the PBL expert that he is, I committed to doing the project in its entirety, which meant I had to do all of the writing.
Over the past two years, I have written much and learned more. I wrote an analytical essay identifying motifs in three of Steinbeck’s novels. Because I wrote this essay, I was reminded of the importance of annotating the text and discovered there were several approaches to structuring the essay. Writing “Sidney Allen” allowed me to see the value of the storyboard and how the students should reference the images to capture the detail with their words. I wrote an essay model for my honors students who were to apply a chapter from Thomas Foster’s How to Read Literature like a Professor to their book of choice. This allowed me to show students how to synthesize information and provide evidence from multiple texts. For each writing piece, the students could not only reference the model and requirements but could hear my struggles and insight, which made for better essays.
So, why should Humanities teachers complete writing prototypes? Yes, writing takes time, but it is beneficial to work on your craft and remember the struggle of writing. As you’re doing the writing, you can see what scaffolding is appropriate, the different ways to organize the writing piece, the types of problems students might face, when to schedule benchmarks and critique, and how the final product will look. Writing projects will be more solid and well-planned. The assignment transforms from an abstract idea to a tangible product. The students see what you are intending and have a reference for the trajectory of the writing piece. It provides a concrete example that students can better reference.
Most importantly, doing the project makes teachers remember what it is like being on the other side of the desk. For me, it reminded me of my procrastination and verbosity, which mirrors many of my students’ struggles. I remembered the value of planning and organizing my essay, and it reinforced the importance of critique. Writing also allowed me to share in my students’ frustrations, and it seemed like I gained more buy-in because they knew I had been there. We had a shared experience. The writing process became visible for the students, and this was invaluable because many believed good writing was inherent and not something everyone struggled through in some way. Although it is scary to put ourselves out there, it is necessary, especially if we are asking students to do the same.
As Ray Bradbury said, “Quantity produces quality. If you only write a few things, you’re doomed.” So do the project, even the longer analytical essays, research papers, and creative pieces. Your students will benefit, you will benefit, and your projects will benefit.
What students had to say about this:
“Not only did I learn what length and style the teacher wanted, but I also learned the voice, perspective, and general point she wanted us to convey. A full example helps clarify and generate ideas that I can then use in my own writing. The fact that she spent her own time writing a model showed me that she really cared about our final product. When reading it, you could tell she spent a great deal of time and effort writing an example for us to base our own writing on.”
Read more about the New Path of the Buddha here.