Trust the Process
My dad, who was a very wise man, always warned me to “never be in too much of a hurry.” When I was in my 20s, and even much of my 30s, this seemed like bad advice. My assumption was that if I wanted something to happen in my life, I had to make it happen. I didn’t realize it then, but I am beginning to understand now, that making it happen was really hustle culture code for pushing myself, expecting perfection, and then punishing myself if I didn’t get what I wanted and the product of my work wasn’t perfect. Words that come to mind when I think of the physical sensations of a make it happen mindset are grinding, gripping, and tensing.
Yes, we must put in effort to reach our goals, and I would never advocate kicking back and watching life pass you by, but decades of living in a body that has grinded, gripped, and tensed through life has taken its toll, leaving me often asking the question: What is the line between making it happen, at the cost of your physical, mental, and spiritual health, and coaching it to happen, through trusting the process?
As I was once a teenager sitting in the same chairs as my students in the same classrooms (I am an alumna of my current campus), I often approach teaching by connecting to my inner child and thinking about what ailed me, and what support and education I needed as an insecure fourteen and seventeen year old. I had issues as a teenager and, in reflection as an adult and a teacher of young women, I realize that most of them boil down to one priority: pleasing others by being perfect -- being a perfect student, a perfect athlete, having a perfect body, and behaving perfectly according to whatever audience for whom I was performing.
As Carol Dweck’s incredible work in Growth Mindset teaches us, with a growth mindset challenges are exciting, not threatening. However, for a perfectionist, exposing “weaknesses” can mean being vulnerable in a way that feels scary, or worse, supports her negative self-image. In Lisa Damour’s Untangled, she mentions the particular burden of perfectionism on girls, who are “more likely to explain failures in terms of internal, permanent factors: she’s broken and can’t be fixed.”
My goal as an educator, especially a writing teacher, is not to give my students feedback that piles on their already insecure selves, but to support them in taking risks, “forming new connections as [they] meet the challenge and learn” (Dweck). My goal is to help students improve their writing skills while also developing their growth mindset, and therefore, overall wellness. So, the question I ask myself is, how can the writing process be used to develop and support the growth mindset wellness competency?
The growth mindset wellness competency
Two words: Revision and reflection.
Revision is everything, in the writing process and our larger life story; however, it is far less appealing than just getting it right on one’s first try. In the last decade or so, research and pedagogical best practice suggest that teachers stray away from using red pens when grading student work, opting to use purple, green or blue, because comments written in the color red are interpreted as more aggressive or convey unintentional negative emotions, a source of defeat rather than development for the student. Though a lovely first step, we, as educators, must extend this work and ask how we can support a growth mindset in our students as they revise their work.
Students are motivated by grades, and this probably won’t change until colleges and universities stop asking for transcripts; therefore, as teachers, we must consider assessment and, specifically as English teachers, how we are evaluating essays and revisions. In order to motivate student writers with grades that are symbolic of a larger process, we must assess the process and value it as much as the content of the final product.
As an example, an assessment flow for an essay unit in an English course that is based on the writing process, versus simply the final essay, might include the following grades:
Grade: Brainstorming / essay proposal / essay prep workspace (20 points)
Grade: Draft 1 // Feedback and assessment on a holistic literary analysis rubric (50 points)
Grade: Draft 2 // Revisions done by the student (Completion grade- 50 points)
Grade: Rubric reflection: Students reflect on each rubric element assessed (10 points)
Grade: Including the essay in a mid-year portfolio reflection (20 points)
Note the essay is referred to as a draft, not a final essay, and the points are evenly split between the first draft and a revised draft, fifty points each, versus giving the “final draft” a 100-point grade. Any point value would work here, but the idea is to not weigh the final assessment so heavily, and instead, give just as many points to the revised draft, perhaps alleviating the pressure on one summative grade while rewarding revision work.
Of course, there are a million ways to assess the writing process, and teachers are always looking for ways to value the process, but I propose we take this work a step further and explicitly link process to wellness. Student writers may develop empathy by seeing their drafts as versions of themselves, versions that are in production and growing and learning, and not being assessed as a final product. If they have a chance to reflect on feedback and then propose how they will grow, they might focus on their potential, which suggests a healthy self-image, or one that is not stuck in a pattern. For example, this student is reflecting on her essay discussion:
And the truth may be that coaching the writing revision process may inform the way students evaluate themselves in other contexts. As Marc Brackett notes in Permission to Feel: “The research is clear: emotions determine whether academic content will be processed deeply and remembered. Linking emotion to learning ensures that students find classroom instruction relevant. It’s what supports students in discovering their purpose and passion, it’s what drives their persistence.”
Tapping into a student writer’s heart by signaling, through feedback and assessment, that her effort is enough will help her develop self-confidence. We can teach writing skills, grammar, and vocabulary, while also coaching students to trust the process, and ultimately, themselves.
Brackett, Marc. Permission to Feel: Unlocking the Power of Emotions to Help Our Kids, Ourselves, and Our Society Thrive. Celadon Books, 2019.
Damour, Lisa. Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood. Ballantine Books, 2016.
Dweck, Carol. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ballantine Books, 2006.
Heart illustration: Eleonora Arosio
Kate Schenck is a collector of pigments and spices, dreamer, and builder of tables for lesser heard voices.