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Managing a Writing Program Through Reflection, Imitation, and Experience

A recent PBS documentary about China began with these words boldly appearing on the screen:

By three methods, we may learn wisdom:

First, by reflection, which is noblest;

Second, by imitation, which is easiest;

And third, by experience, which is the bitterest.


The documentary focuses on the rapid modernization that China has experienced and will continue to pursue. Confucius’s words serve as an effective guidepost when attempting to come to terms with the new China: We can reflect upon changes in the country, perhaps compare China’s situation with similar situations, see what unfolds because of the changes, and so on.

Without taking too much of a leap, it struck me that this quotation could serve as the guidepost and/or inspiration for an effective writing program as well. Here’s how I would apply it:

First, by reflection, which is noblest

An effective writing program must provide students with many opportunities to engage in personal writing—or writing that allows them to make sense of their thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and actions. Personal writing can take many forms—journal writing, blog writing, personal narratives, personal essays, poetry, and so on. These forms of writing naturally allow students to reflect. Reflection should also be an important feature of any academic writing assignment. After students complete an expository essay, a persuasive essay, or a literary analyses, they should be asked to reflect upon their writing experience: What do they like best about their writing? What didn’t turn out quite as well as they would have liked? What did they learn from this writing? What will they do differently next time? Confucius calls reflecting the “noblest” method of gaining wisdom. Certainly this holds true with writing because what could be nobler than having students think and write for themselves?

Second, by imitation, which is easiest

Skilled writing teachers regularly share with their students well-made writing samples—from short passages to complete articles, narratives, and stories. After a discussion of a particular sample, writing teachers often ask their students to develop their own writing, following the level of detail, structure, voice, and/or sentence style exhibited in the original. This type of writing helps students appreciate the skills of accomplished writers, and it gives them new ways to express themselves in their own writing.

Imitating can also be done on the “quick and easy” by simply writing a well-made sentence on the board and having students write their own version following the structure of the original. If done on a daily basis, this activity can expand the students’ understanding of writing at the sentence level. (See “Daily Sentence Workouts.”)

Confucius calls imitating the “easiest” method of gaining wisdom. Again, this basically holds true when students are writing to imitate because they are following the lead established by someone else (although, I must admit, imitating is not always as easy as it first appears).

And third, by experience, which is bitterest

A third element of an effective writing program is to give students plenty of opportunities to write to share and write to show learning. When students write to share, they are developing articles, essays, stories, poems, and plays for a specific audience (their classmates, family members) or for a specific purpose (entering to a writing contest, submitting to a Web site).

Students write to show learning when they develop academic essays addressing concepts covered in particular content areas and when they answer essay questions on tests. Writing to share or show learning requires a great deal of careful planning, writing, and revising (except, of course, when answering test questions when there is very little time to work).

Confucius calls experiencing the “bitterest” method of gaining wisdom. Certainly writing to share and writing to show learning can lead to disappointment or rejection if, in fact, the students’ finished pieces are not well received (which doesn’t happen very often), not favorably assessed, or not accepted for publication. The hope is that students learn from these experiences and strive to do better on their next writings. That’s when wisdom is gained.

The Bottom Line: If you’re new and interested in building a writing program, consider reflection, imitation, and experience as important aspects to address. If you’ve been around awhile, ask yourself if your students get enough exposure to each one. If not, it may be time to make some changes.

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