The Writing Process: What Works So Well Here

posted in
Send by email

By Brett Mathes

Brett Mathes

When I interviewed for my current position in the Catlin Gabel English department, I found the writing system here to be among the foremost attractions. I had taught in a boarding school in New England for seven years, so I had firsthand experience with more traditional modes of teaching composition skills. To my mind, our department’s method represents an ideal synthesis of the traditional and the progressive.

Each English class here requires students to write every day. Most periods begin with a “WEDGE” (writing every day generates ease) prompt, which allows participants to reflect informally on their reading, brainstorm for an upcoming assignment, or share an opinion on a current event. Through this regular process, our young writers learn to conquer writer’s block; the blank page loses its ability to intimidate.

Every writing assignment at Catlin Gabel emphasizes process as much as product. Students have the opportunity to draft, to read each others’ work, to seek criticism from peers and from their teacher, and to revise more than once. They see that even the best writers produce flawed first drafts, and that no matter how dissatisfied they are with their own draft, they can improve it through good process. The “edit as you go” one-draft mentality, which word processing software has fostered, often teaches kids to stifle their own creative output in the interests of making everything perfect immediately. Catlin Gabel’s process helps them unlearn this bad habit, generate ideas fully, and let their work mature before pulling out the editor’s magnifying glass.

Through one-on-one time with instructors and collaborative critiques, our young writers learn to evaluate their own work qualitatively and accurately. The traditional model of grading essays is to write a lengthy response to each student followed by a letter grade. All too often students in my boarding school days would flip directly to the grade, ignore what I had written, stuff the paper into their backpack, and learn no more from the experience than the vague notion that they were an A or B writer.

At Catlin Gabel, by contrast, students have the opportunity to see what their teachers expect at the beginning of each project, not just at the end. Classes will look over the exemplary work of past students, evaluate it alongside their teacher, and learn what makes an effective essay through direct observation. Then, when they have finalized their own piece of writing, they write a metacritical response: a self-evaluative reflection on process and product. Through this metacricital step, students also set the agenda for their one-on-one meeting with the teacher. In that conference, the teacher answers the student’s questions, evaluates her essay orally as well as in writing, and prompts her to take notes on key focal points for the next assignment. Only after the student synthesizes the information from the conference does she ask for her grade, so that the grade emerges from the context of more important, qualitative criticism.

From what I have observed, the Catlin Gabel system produces young writers who are more savvy, more independent, and more resourceful than their peers in a more traditional school. It is a pleasure to see our students leave us with the confidence to produce creative work, to defend their ideas rigorously, and to communicate their ideas cogently.

Brett Mathes teaches Upper School English. He has been at Catlin Gabel since 2007.