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Teach Quantity Over Quality

Had he been a middle school teacher, Thomas More might have quipped, "An absolutely new idea is one of the rarest things known to man...and adolescent writers." There is no way around it. Students stare at blank paper.

Knowing what to write can feel impossible when our goal is to write something perfectly. When young writers grope for the perfect idea, few come.

This weekend, as I finished Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, I picked up my pencils to sketch the enduring ideas from the book. Adam Grant shares research by Dean Simonton "the most prolific people not only have the highest originality; they also generate their most original output during the periods in which they produce the largest volume (37)." It makes sense. We learn that of Thomas Edison's 1,093 patents only five or six stuck. Although Grant and Simonton are referencing giants in their fields (Shakespeare, Edison, Beethoven, et al.), I see these findings at play in the middle school classroom.

While Grant writes more towards commerce and industry, I can't help but see my struggling adolescent writers in this line: "Many people fail to achieve originality because they generate few ideas and then obsess about refining them to perfection (37)." In my world, "originality" means the generation of ideas--arguably the most important skill we can teach young writers. Yet, my eyes return to "obsess about them refining them to perfection." How often this type of academic freeze-up infiltrates our young writers! Doubt erases more words than...well, erasers.

This is why we keep writer's notebooks.

This is why everything cannot count for a grade in the ELA classroom.

This is why we cannot possibly read everything written by our students.

This is why we need to model and value the rough work, the generation of lists, the sketches, the unfinished single lines, the returning to ideas scrawled days before....

Yet, if we do not take the time to make our classrooms a studio in the spirit of Picasso (who needed 79 sketches just for Guernica), students never see or experience a model of what this kind of work feels like.

It feels so...reckless to suggest first teaching quantity over quality because it often sounds like we skip the quantity part. But that is what we must do.

Who has the time for quantity? We do. We have that choice.

If students only come to know that the only reason to write is for an evaluation and a score, we compress the writing process to pushing a wisp of blue through a shrinking needle's eye that few kids feel prepared to thread.

Yet, if we know that the best path to quality is quantity, and if we know that our predisposition to form is really only about conforming to the standards of a test (as we try to convince ourselves "no-no, really, this form is really good for them; kids need to learn how to write like this"), and if we know that our students really aren't learning how to generate ideas or make connections on their own, and if we know--deep in our gut--because we value form over evidence of holistic growth, then haven't we taught young writers to do little but to doubt themselves as writers?

Aren't we equipping them with false positives when we hold a singular golden form over smudged reams of cobwebby, incomplete thinking?


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