Rigor Without Mortis: Writing in Today’s Classrooms

No intellectual endeavor demands more rigor than does writing.  Think about it: The writer gets a thought, which in itself is both ephemeral and fleeting. Then to be written, the thought must be transcribed into a highly complex system of letters, words, syntax, and meaning so that readers get the same thought in their heads that was in the writer’s. That’s rigor. If you don’t believe me—try writing, after you wake up, that fabulous thought you wrote in bed in your head about two in the morning. What you write even an hour later just doesn’t jibe with the original, does it?

Hard, Tough Work

Writing is hard, tough; and, for many students, wearisome work.

You know what else is hard, tough work? Sports and ballet. Kids will spend hours practicing their sport—for example, swimming: 25 yards, then 50, then 100. Years of the back, breast , butterfly, and freestyle strokes—over and over and over again, year after year. And yet they run to practice—can’t wait to get in the water.

Little girls, big ones, and boys, too, for that matter, will wear out sets of shoes practicing their pliés, relevés, passes, leaps, jumps, and stretches for ballet. Babies walk around on tiptoes to strengthen their toe muscles; bigger kids stand in second position before attempting time and time again that grand jeté or that simple sauté.   

But ask a student to revise a paper or even to rewrite a section, and you might as well have asked them to junk their favorite video game. You get the stink eye, the folded arms, the tude, “I wrote it, didn’t I? What more do you want?”

Yet for writing to become polished, it must be practiced.  So what’s the secret?  How do we get rigor in writing like coaches manage to get in sports and ballet without killing it?

Love of Writing

I’ve got the answer: LOVE! 

Kids need to fall in love with writing. When you are in love, you want to spend all your time with the loved one. You think about what or who you love most of the time. Case in point, if kids love soccer, they will practice it, watch it being played both live and on TV, read about it, talk about it, or even just hold the ball. They know the names of the major players, their stats, and all about their teams.  They are in love.

So when approaching writing with students, we need first to help them fall in love:

  • Read aloud to them from well-wrought pieces of writing that interest them. Point out neat things—like how italics show thought or how quotation marks show someone is talking.
  • Copy great lines—lines that sing or stick in the brain—words, too.
  • Talk about writing. Not (at first) academic things like plot or thesis—there will be time for that—but what they liked or didn’t like. What struck them most. What in the writing is like something in their life—real, authentic topics that spark the embers of love. 

So LOVE is a biggie. 

Model the Writing

The second biggie is modeling. When I watch my goddaughter at swim, I see the coach in the water. I see the coach moving her arms correctly and then watching Joyce Elizabeth moving hers. I see the coach kicking different ways for different strokes and watching as Joyce emulates her. I hear her calling out moves in the act of swimming. I see her asking Joyce to do things over—but only one or two more times—at first.  I see pacing and I know the coach knows her stuff. When it’s all over, I see the coach ask the swimmers to write in their journals what they learned. These kids are in love with swimming.

Ballet is no different. Joyce’s coach is a former ballerina from the famous Russian ballet corps, known for their rigor. (When relaxed, Miss Ella stands in first position!) Like the swimming coach, this woman knows her stuff, and the kids know she knows it. Practice is both grueling and fun as Miss Ella moves about the room adjusting a leg here, an arm there, encouraging, always encouraging. Miss Ella never asks them to do something she has not shown them by doing it herself. 

So when we approach writing with students, we need to model, model, model.

  • Prime the students by showing them our expectations. If we want them to move from too many simple sentences, for example, we must show them how to compound them. If we want them to indent paragraphs or use ellipsis, we must show them how we indent or use ellipsis in our own writing.
  • Point out techniques in the writing of published writers. These also serve as models (often called mentor texts or focal texts). “See, look here how Ellen Miles uses dashes in her book, Lucky. Let’s all try to do that in our writing.” “Notice when Pam Muñoz Ryan writes a metaphor or a simile in Esperanza Rising. I bet we could do that in our writing, too. I’m going to try it. You try it, too.”

Rigor without mortis isn’t easy, but it’s challenging, and the brain loves a challenge.  As Edgar Degas, the French Impressionist who was known for his painting of the ballet, once said, “One must repeat the same subject 10 times, a hundred times. Nothing in art must seem an accident, not even movement.” 

But to get that in writing, the student must fall in love first and have a model to follow thereafter. That’s how we raise rigor and resist mortis.

Learn more about HMH’s new K-12 Into Reading program.