“Earth is Forgiveness School”–Anne Lamott

By Ryan Donovan|April 17, 2015|Reflection|3 comments

Our class sessions on Professors & Persistence got me thinking about the role of forgiveness in the classroom, particularly inspired by writer Anne Lamott‘s essay on “shitty first drafts.” In this essay, Lamott gives writers permission to write badly, at first. Along with this come the notion that first drafts are supposed to be shitty and to forgive yourself for not being perfect.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this in relation to modes of assessment. Many (most!) classes are geared toward particular moments of assessment (midterm, final exam, final paper, etc.). There is a lot of pressure for students to be perfect at these moments. If you think the difference between an A- and a B+ might mean you don’t get accepted to the grad school you want to attend, these moments of assessment carry an even greater weight.

And yet I like to think of assessment also as a chance for forgiveness. I want to help students look at assessment tasks as an opportunity not just to see what they did well or could have done differently, but also to assess their preparation/performance and acknowledge their effort, large or small. This (hopefully) inevitably involves accepting what one did wrong and forgiving oneself for this.

Forgiveness is a moment of learning. In the act of forgiving, we must assess the situation and acknowledge our part in its creation. To truly forgive involves a fair amount of metacognition.

I came across another essay by Anne Lamott yesterday that is full of wisdom. She writes briefly about shitty first drafts again, among other topics (family, publishing, success, etc.). The title of this blog post (“Earth is Forgiveness School“) comes from Lamott’s thoughts on family.

Ok, so how have I applied this to my pedagogy?

I try to design activities that combine multiple elements from our Futures class. In the example I am about to describe, I planned a way to turn a summative assessment task into a formative assessment activity and addressed the emotions/life circumstances of the student surrounding this. My least favorite part of teaching is having to return exams to students, because everyone one of us wants an A and we take our grades personally as if they represent an intrinsic truth about our worth (even if we just do this for a second). I wanted to find a way to make returning the midterm exam a productive learning moment for the class rather than just feeling like crap because some students got C’s or F’s.

To alleviate my class’s focus on grades, we read parts of Lamott’s essay on shitty first drafts in relation to their short essays on the midterm. I explained to them that I did not think their essays were shitty, but that they were first drafts written in an artificial, timed environment. I then explained that I would be giving them the chance to revise and rewrite their lowest scoring answer. They were allowed to use the textbook in order to correct factual errors or find new evidence for their claims. Their revised version would become their next quiz grade. The gift was that simply by doing the act of rewriting, each student would get 100% on this quiz. This was a way of turning a high stakes assignment into a low stakes one, and summative into formative assessment.

Implicit in this was an eye toward encouraging students to forgive themselves for their lowest scoring essay. Many students ran out of time during the real exam or were having a bad day or did not prepare adequately. This was a chance for them to move beyond that and practice the skill of revising and rewriting. I think it also had the effect of demonstrating empathy for students by allowing them the chance to have a “do-over” and by showing them that writing is a process that is, quite frankly, never finished. As writers, we always want the chance to go back and tweak even after something has been published. While we don’t often get that chance, I believe it is something we can give our students. 


  1. This is fabulous. I’m personally very tired of the “learning from failure” mantra because our society is so incredibly cruel about those who “fail.” We brutalize and beat down and reject–and then say, oh, yeah, and didn’t you learn something from that? “Learning from forgiveness” gets around that ideology. Very powerful, Ryan. Thanks for this. I hope for the final, public syllabus assignment (I just wrote about this in a blog post for our class and over on HASTAC), you will incorporate this learning from forgiveness. We can all learn from this. Thank you.

  2. Ryan, this is really timely for me, too – I brought the Lamott piece into my class last week as part of our writing workshop, and my students really enjoyed it. (We had talked about it in a workshop at Queens that week, too!). They honed in on her different and helpful ways of thinking about writing, from the three different kinds of drafts (so freeing to have choices there!) to the lack of pretension in her prose.

    As someone who writes and thinks a lot about the interrelations among affect, creativity, and learning, I’m always really struck by her emotional openness in this piece. She’s not afraid to help her readers accept that it’s okay to be afraid, or frustrated, or to think a piece of writing is terrible. Your beautiful articulation of forgiveness is, I think, exactly what she’s up to, and I’d like to use it to introduce the essay the next time I teach it.

  3. Pingback: Mapping the Semester | Mapping the Futures of Higher Education

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