Maybe you are blessed to work somewhere that students’ writing lives are fully supported, but most of my students come to me believing that they are not writers — worse they believe they can never become writers — and even worse they persist in this belief despite much evidence to the contrary. These negative perceptions are the result of educational malpractice and cultural gaslighting. There has been a tremendous shift in K-12 education to focus on on-demand writing due to our national obsession with testing and standardizing education. This practice is damaging to developing writers on so many levels and offers absolutely zero benefits to students or schools — let alone the world where those students will need to communicate both professionally and personally. However, we do need to remember that many of our current crop of students are adept communicators — just not in the academic prose we were once accustomed to expect by the time students graduated from high school. I resist the notion that our sole job is to teach students academic writing, but we do need to teach our student writers how to write in a variety of contexts and this requires that we help developing writers think about writing much more than we currently do.
Far too many people equate writing with grammar, spelling, and other mechanical issues. Obviously grammar, spelling, sentence structure, and word choice matter, but I’ve read many perfectly crafted paragraphs that said nothing or were completely inappropriate for the context and I’ve also read paragraphs (sometimes written them too) that contain several mechanical errors, but send a powerful message. Too often we mix up the medium with the message and that has taught far too many writers that they have nothing worthwhile to say and every voice stifled is a loss to the world. I think the reason that far too many people confuse the form with the function of writing is because too often the ways we talk about writing, teach writing, and assess writing focus on the form. If we truly want to foster writers and support their growth then we need to do more to inspire them to think about writing beyond the superficial. I regularly employ three methods to challenge how my students think about writing.
Digging Into A Topic
Humans are lazy about a lot of things. We frequently choose the path of least resistance – especially when it comes to a task that doesn’t interest us or we think is too hard. This is one reason that so much of student writing is insipid and boring. Many students choose a topic to write about that seems the easiest and then they write an easy superficial essay which is then graded based on superficial features. If we want our student writers to have more than a superficial relationship with the text they create then we need to create classrooms that do likewise. There is nothing I abhor more than the disposable writing assignment. It is such a waste of time and energy and as I enter my fourth decade of teaching I have learned to not only ration my own limited reserves, but recognize that squandering those of my students is problematic at best. I like to engage themes to provide a framework or boundary for our work, because I have found that working within the same boundaries challenges us to dig deeper into a topic layer by layer. This Spring my students were challenged to think about games in new ways both by breaking them down and building them up. The goal of these experiences was to provide fodder for students’ thinking and writing, but also to model the experience of thinking more deeply about a text and an idea. I think all too often we fall into the trap as teachers (encouraged by forces outside our classroom that confuse quantity with quality) to want our classes to focus too much on the horizontal plane and ignore the potential offered by the vertical plane. While a breadth of understanding is good there is also a lot to be gained by digging deeply into a topic and exploring it from a variety of angles. This year one of the tweaks I made to my syllabi was to reduce the number of final deliverables so we had more opportunity to dig deeper into our reading, thinking, and writing. How much opportunity for digging does your writing classroom offer?
Too often both learning and writing are portrayed as solitary endeavors and teachers are expected to be the Sage on the Stage who drops some knowledge and then pushes their solitary scholars out of the classroom to succeed or fail based on their own merits. This model is limiting in so many ways. There is only so much reading, thinking, or writing that one solitary person can achieve. Also, each student segregated in their silo often generates only superficial and repetitive work. I much prefer the crowdsourcing model where students collaborate and communicate so they can build on the work of others both inside and outside our classroom. This means that when I assign a text set to explore a topic different students are assigned different tasks. Sometimes I am interested in more breadth than depth so a text might have only one primary reader which then allows us to explore more texts (limited only by the number of students in the class), but other times I want to encourage more depth and so several students are given the task of summarizing the text, identifying key ideas, and reporting back to the group. I always employ backup because additional minds offer additional insights and viewpoints which is helpful when we are looking for breadth but essential when we are looking for depth. This process also exposes students to the benefits of exploring multiple viewpoints about a topic or idea. How much opportunity for crowdsourcing and collaboration does your writing classroom offer?
Too often academic writing is held up as some gold standard when in reality its origins are much more murky. Academic writing originally began as a delivery system and somehow morphed into the goal rather than a means to an end. I continue to push back against holding up the “essay” as anything more than a convenience and strive to include more authentic deliverables in my classes (such as This I Believe essays). My work with the National Writing Project’s College, Career, and Community Writer’s program has supported this effort. In addition, I work very hard to help my students see that the definition of text is very broad and that most (if not all?) texts are arguments. My first unit in our American Literacy class explored the arguments portrayed by images and songs. Then our second unit focused on the arguments portrayed by popular culture media (books, movies, comics, and television shows). My game-themed class explored the arguments portrayed by games. I want my students to understand the role that rhetoric plays in every aspect of their lives and I want them to have practice analyzing and creating a variety of texts. While I continue to teach traditional essays, I no longer teach a class that focuses solely on such a disposable assignment. However, my students create games, slam poems, and other unique texts that help them share their voice within our class community and beyond. How many different text types does your classroom explore?
There are many different things I hope to teach my students. I hope to teach them writing self-efficacy and self-regulation as well as unpack their writing baggage. I hope to challenge the way they form their beliefs and opinions. But most of all I hope to teach my students to recognize that writing is so much more than they thought. How do you challenge the ways your students think about writing? How do you help your students see themselves as writers?