Seven-year-old Austin’s drawing of a Tiger Swallowtail butterfly was exquisite, but he was no child prodigy. Rather, Austin’s butterfly came to life over six successive drafts, nurtured by suggestions and critiques from his classmates and teacher.
Computer-coders, chefs, writers, are seldom satisfied with a first draft. They write reams of code or bake dozens of éclairs, continually tinkering before they are satisfied. Earnest Hemingway famously penned 47 different endings to his novel “A Farewell to Arms.”
Yet students are rarely given the time and tools to turn good work into great work. Ambitious curriculums race from the Romans to the Romanovs, from genetics to global warming, in a flurry of assignments. Tests often emphasize breadth over depth. Students aim to complete assignments rather than master craftsmanship.
I will be the first to admit guilt. Too often as a teacher I returned papers and projects covered in comments, but provided little time for students to process and revise.
Revising is often considered synonymous with failure rather than as an integral component of true success.
But not at the Renaissance School in Springfield, where revision is one of four core values. As eighth-graders preparing for high schools, students are asked to reflect on their work — compiling, editing, and revising a portfolio they believe captures their academic growth. Before graduation, in front of faculty, family, and friends, each student presents the portfolio, speaking and answering questions about the skills gained and the craftsmanship learned.
Craftsmanship is fundamental to the EL Education network of schools, which includes Renaissance. The network supports 160 district and charter schools nation-wide, including 13 in Massachusetts, with professional development and coaching. Why does EL consider revision important? Ron Berger, a veteran teacher, and chief program officer, believes that developing excellent papers simultaneously develops student confidence. “A student knows they are capable of great things when they see themselves create great work,” Berger says.
But that’s not all. Craftsmanship cultivates essential life skills in problem-solving and grit.
The ninth-graders at High Tech High, one of a rapidly expanding STEAM-focused charter school network in California, have gained a deep appreciation for perseverance. In a joint humanities and physics class, students struggled over a semester to construct a stunning eight-foot-square mechanical illustration made of birch wood explaining how and why civilizations rise and fall. Each day they grappled with laser cutters, theoretical concepts, and the laws of angular velocity, making a hundreds of iterative tweaks until they unveiled their jaw-dropping final construction to the school community.
Students naturally strive to do better. At the online course platform Udacity, all participants have the opportunity to improve their grade by revising their work and responding to comments. Many of their students submit multiple drafts, sometimes more than a dozen for a single project.
It will likely take many drafts before we are able to create such reflective school cultures nationwide, but to do so we will need everyone within the school ecosystem on board. Administrators and teachers will need to collaborate to construct curriculums that leave time for reflection and revision, that intentionally teach students how to give meaningful feedback, and that inspire students with models of exceptional work.
Cultivating grit and elevating craftsmanship will not only prepare students for the professional world. Life itself is a continual work in progress. Let’s ensure that students learn the ability to continually improve and the conviction that, by doing so, they can do extraordinary things.Jessica Lander is a teacher and writer living in the Boston area.