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Curse with a Purpose: Permission to Write Sh*t

I teach at an independent high school, and one of the courses I teach, Advanced Composition, is a class focused on lots and lots of process writing. While I'm a fan of basic decorum in a school setting, I do introduce students to a word that some may deem too vulgar for classroom discourse: sh*t.

I say it a lot.

I can't say this term is original by any stretch, and I'm not trying to curry favor with the kids by being that edgy, cool teacher who drops f-bombs, stands on desks, and makes students rip up their copies of Dickens while sounding my barbaric yawp (I prefer subtlety). But sh*t certainly has its purpose.

Thanks to Bird by Bird author, Anne Lamott, "sh*t" has become a household word for the beginning of the writing process. She introduces writers--and writing teachers--to the concept of "Sh*tty First Drafts." Lots of writing teachers make reference to this chapter of Bird by Bird, and many share in Lamott's philosophy:

Now, practically even better news than that of short assignments is the idea of shitty first drafts. All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts. 

Why sh*t? Why don't I use a less unsavory word with such impressionable youth? Like bad, awful, terrible, horrible? I say sh*t because I can't think of a more purposeful word in the English language that so precisely sums up what I want students to do at the first stage of their writing: to purge themselves, to be obnoxious in their expression, to fumble with their words. Sh*t invites students into a riskier zone--a place where more growth is likelier to happen.

But isn't that just for personal writing?


You advocate for sh*t even with analytical writing?


With all writing?


I have been teaching for 17 years, and among the populations I have taught, there have been several common denominators: students are afraid to be wrong (they believe real writers are never wrong); students are afraid to make mistakes (they believe good writers are perfect on the first draft); students are looking to their teachers to just tell them what to do, rather than take risks (they typically choose to play it safe). 

And in my 17 years as a teacher of writing, there also have been several common denominators: students who start from a sh*tty first draft become much better writers over time; students who write sh*tty drafts learn to let go of perfectionism, which paradoxically, makes their later drafts even more flawless and their arguments more complex; teachers who advocate for risk-taking-- to start with sh*t--find that students have more pride in what they produce.

Before students begin their first sh*tty drafts, there's a moment of disbelief, not because they think the word sh*t is abhorrent, but because I am telling the students to be wrong, to screw up, to be messy--and to start by making lots and lots of mistakes. But for high school students in a high stakes, competitive, no-college-degree-you-might-as-well-throw-in-the-towel culture, mistakes are major character flaws. 

I can get down with why students feel the need to be perfect. It's harder to get into college these days, and students toil to distinguish themselves from their peers. The culture of power is harder to access, because students who have a societal strike against them have to work that much harder for the few spots available on university campuses. 

And this is where the word sh*t gets tricky. After all, someone is paying a premium for these students to attend our school; writing badly is the antithesis of our desires.

But writing badly is the beginning of writing beautifully.

So after telling students that sh*t is their starting point (and justifying to parents at Back to School Night that their tuition is well spent), I draw a continuum on the board:

Students may have permission to write sh*t initially, but after numerous drafts (typically three or four) and lots of polish, that sh*t will be transformed into something better. The goal, in effect, isn't to write sh*t, but rather, to be patient with the process.

And then what? How do students then get from sh*t to that shiny diamond? While I won't get into a lot of specifics in this post, I do think it's important to see the need for sh*t in a greater context.

Once upon a time in English-teaching-landia (also known as ye olde 1970s, but more so in ye less olde 80s), a movement known as Whole Language emerged as a response to more prescribed, formulaic approaches to teaching writing. One element of whole language was about starting with free expression (the whole)--allowing students to spill just about whatever and however onto the page before focusing on the specific parts of the task. Students, in effect, had more autonomy in their writing at the outset. Yet in a lot of cases, writing sh*t became an end in itself. 

For some teachers, the whole language movement subverted the drill n' kill grammar of the past (which research has proven, doesn't do sh*t to improve one's writing). Yet these teachers who were over the drill n' kill approach pendulated whole hog into whole language and didn't balance the scales with purposeful grammar instruction.

In the 90s, the pendulum shifted the other way to a more hooked-on-phonics approach, especially for struggling students. Jane Greene's Language! was all the rage for some districts, but in the classroom, teaching began to feel like that "wah wah" woman from Charlie Brown. We were producing linguists rather than writers. And students lost their voices.

The work of people like Constance Weaver (and a whole host of others), who balance the goals of whole language with teaching grammar and writing in authentic contexts, aimed to right the wrongs of both extremes by inviting teachers and students to understand how content and style work in real writing in the real world. And at the same time, there needed to be a place for students to be a little messy.

Writing sh*tty drafts pays homage to a core philosophy of the whole language movement while not being an end in itself. Writing in authentic contexts allows students to learn about the why behind the purpose, form, and style of each writing piece--so that the final product is clear and crisp. And this is the philosophy of my writing classroom.

Anne Lamott describes it like this:

Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something--anything--down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft--you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft--you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it's loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy. 

Perhaps future blog posts will be about how I specifically get students to move on from their sh*t to something better--from the down draft to the dental draft. But that's not the purpose for today.

For now, I'm the purveyor of sh*t, of freeing students from perfection by inviting them to curse with a purpose, to learn patience in the process--both about themselves and about what they're capable of creating. 


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