From My Side of the Desk
Oh, for the love of writing!
Last week Megan, my ‘60s era college roommate, and I were chatting about whatever school-related topic jumped into our brains. We were tossing around ideas to turn reluctant students on to reading and writing when she said, “Kids see writing as punishment”. As I dusted off my despair at her exclamation, I knew that I had no choice but to agree with her. More often than not, by the time students swing open the doors to middle school their desire to express their thoughts on paper has been squashed. Compulsory insipid prompts, micromanaged writing formats and feelings of failure caused by minute line-by-line edits are three of the causes.
In the movie Finding Forrester, Sean Connery’s character, William Forrester, shared his philosophy on writing with Jamal Wallace who was struggling to create his opening free-writing sentence when he said, “First write from the heart, then from the head”. Those few words that I paraphrased became my classroom mantra every year, every time my students wrote, be it free writing or an assignment, and every time they wrestled with pulling out those thoughts and ideas, wedged like impacted wisdom teeth in the crevices of their brains.
No, I didn’t throw away my various criteria for a plethora of writing activities, nor did I rip up my rubrics that addressed writing skills from spelling to grammar and usage to punctuation to sentence structure to number of paragraphs. In regards to writing, the How Students Said It remained quite important, but became secondary to the What They Said, which I knew, should always… always hold Top Priority.
On her blog, www.thatwritinglady.com, Catherine Killingsworth posted an insightful piece, Are You Teaching Your Kids to Hate Writing? She said that teachers are promoting this loathing if they: Use writing as a punishment; don’t give feedback, and don’t let their students do creative writing projects. As much as I am embarrassed to admit, I am guilty of Number 1: Use writing as a punishment. When students showed unseemly behavior, i.e. sliding into class late, talking out of turn, sleeping, for example, I was known to offer them Option A: Spending 6:30-7:15 AM working on an assignment in my classroom, or Option B: Writing an essay on The importance of responsible behavior or some equally tedious topic.
My thought was that the pain of addressing the issue in writing-would thwart any future rule flaunting and they would also have the opportunity to perfect their writing skills. I never even considered that I was deflating their passion for writing and feeding an aversion that would crop up with every future writing activity. Students usually chose Option B because it was infinitely more palatable than spending forty-five minutes before school warming classroom chairs. Unfortunately, it created a major snag for me to unravel.
When and why did I forget my golden rule that writing was a way for children to show ownership of their thoughts, their ideas, and their own unique voices? When and why did I permit the quest for finely-honed writing skills to overtake students’ writing from the heart? When and why did I allow the concern about students’ writing proficiency and the underlying bureaucratic threat behind their not reaching this benchmark to become the means and the end to my lessons?
I knew in my soul that if I could instill in my students the confidence to own their thoughts and the understanding that if they could put pen to paper or press those keys that they were already writers. With every opportunity they expressed, they would see what worked and what didn’t in their pieces. Together, as a class and in individual conferences, we would identify the weak aspects and learn how to replace them with strong writing.
Keeping those guiding principles in the forefront of my brain, I would create lessons that stemmed from the students’ assurance that they could express themselves without being told, “No that isn’t right,” because their thoughts didn’t concur with mine. As a result of growing up with a "my way is the only way" father, I was adamant about never using this controlling ploy, though I knew that this way of thinking did invade some educational circles.
Every single grammatical/spelling/punctuation error wouldn’t be drowning in red, green or purple ink. Confession time: Yes, I was guilty of line-by-line grading until I came to my senses. Nor would I adhere to the easy-to-grade- but stultifying five-paragraph essay. Maybe their papers would take five paragraphs to fully develop their idea, but maybe they would need three or thirteen or thirty.
Instead, I would offer them a minimum of six choices as well as a choose-your-own-topic option for every analytic writing. Also, their edited papers would focus on three to four content and grammar areas only, not every single misplaced comma, misspelled word, etc. All they were told about the length was, "Write until you have fully explained your idea".
By heeding these tenets, my students improved their understanding of what to write and how to write it. Most importantly, though, because the concentration was on what they needed to be taught to become strong writers, they retained a love of writing that they carried with them throughout their lives. Oh, yes, they earned high scores on writing tests, state or nationwide, too.
Whether in the classroom or at home, children need to write for fun and not just to meet academic benchmarks. They can create Madlibs, write scripts for ICarly, Victorious, or Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide to act out, or pretend they are on ESPN and prepare, perform and record interviews or sports commentaries. They can create song lyrics and write in journals that they are confident will be read by their eyes only. They can combine drawing and painting with writing by creating storybooks that they share with neighborhood children or at local libraries during book reading times.
Are they stuck on Downton Abbey or another television show? If so, parents, ask their children open-ended questions that would generate a discussion about plot, characters, filming techniques, and casting, just to name a few conversation starters. Why talk about a TV program? Because with every tête-à-tête, young people are learning how to express their thoughts clearly. They will remember this and use these same techniques when they have to write a critique or an analysis of a literary piece.
This will ward off the Dreaded Literary Demons, too. If academic dialogs evolve from engaging discussions where students and teachers reveal elements that intrigue them or where they feel free to explain why the author’s words move them or how they create word pictures, students will learn how to write with the same passion and technical prowess that they use verbally. They will develop the faith that they can proficiently identify and evaluate, in writing, examples of themes, figurative language, or any other literary facet they may be asked to explain.
Young adults should not be forced on the prison march of writing about a topic for which they have virtually no feeling. They should not be mandated to format their thoughts into five paragraphs only, or ordered to copy, “I will not…” sentences in their notebooks 500 times. They should not be required to complete essay quizzes as a penalty because teachers are miffed that they aren’t responding in class discussions or not completing the reading assignments. They should not face overly-edited papers that make them cringe instead of conjuring up an, “I can do this" attitude in their minds for the next writing mission.
Oh, for the love of writing:
Children should be given a multitude of chances to write from the heart without worrying about being told their ideas are wrong, their writing style has no style, or their spelling is atrocious.
Children should be allowed to feel the flush of excitement when they string plain words into Kodak moment word pictures.
Children should be allowed to hold onto that love for writing they had when they were eight and the thoughts bubbled from the word fountain in their souls so they can open the floodgates to this very same passion when they are eighteen.
Oh, for the love of writing.
Until next week,