“In the past I was discouraged about my writing. I knew I wasn’t stupid, but seeing all those C minuses and worse on those papers made me feel like a moron. I knew I should try harder and revise my papers, but I just didn’t have the heart to look at them again after they had gotten such low grades.”
The students that Wilder mentioned that don’t even try in the first place, out of fear fueled by past writing “failures,” really stuck with me as well, and I think it is what drives her point home about “pruning too early.” The students who have the worst attitude need the most help. The use of the portfolio system puts the contentedness of those who were doing well at the bottom of the agenda, but this has to be done when the priority is helping discouraged writers. It is worth upsetting students who usually do well anyway with a traditional grading system if it means helping students who usually struggle. By using this system, both the students and Wilder benefitted as the quality of writing increased.
The successfulness of the portfolio system shows how the students’ resentment and disdain for writing was linked to the poor confidence they had in their writing. By eliminating a grade until the piece was truly finished, the students could have more confidence in their writing because they didn’t automatically feel like they had issues with it from the very beginning; they don’t have to worry about just getting an “A,” but can take chances that will lead to better-formed writing. It prevents them from what Wilder called “southern biscuiting”, when students started out with very poor confidence in their writing and stated it up front as an excuse:
“It was hard for me to start this paper. Every idea I had sounded stupid once it was written down on the page. I filled my trash can with crumpled papers and finally wrote this one. You’ll probably hate it.”
With the portfolio system, the students probably felt less pressure, especially in just starting their writing, and so they could refrain from “southern biscuiting” and having poor confidence in their writing. Instead, they could just focus on improving it. This also links back to the notion of high and low stakes writing in Peter Elbow’s piece. By using a series of low-stakes drafts, the students can have more practice for the high-stakes final product and build confidence in their writing along the way.
With that being said, I think the best way to encourage discouraged writers is to not discourage them in the first place, or to not “prune too early”; I completely agree with Wilder. In the first drafts of writing, there should be mostly positive comments. This idea again relates back to the Elbow piece on responding to writing. Elbow, like Wilder, suggests drafts for high-stakes writing and also encourages positive responses to not-as-strong writing. Both authors suggest picking out parts of the writing that shine through the most and encouraging the student to write more like those sections. Doing this before assigning any sort of grade, in my opinion, would give the writer confidence while still giving them helpful insight to ways they could improve their writing.
Although not assigning grades can be tricky and upset some students, I think it is worth it for both the students and the teacher. As the students’ confidence in their writing grows, their resentment toward it will lessen and the quality will increase.
— Rose Steptoe