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April 1, 2018
Vol. 75
No. 7

Making Student Writing Matter

If teachers place an emphasis on ideas over mechanics, on creativity over regurgitation, student writing will flourish.

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Instructional StrategiesCurriculumEngagement
Good writing has always been driven by the desire to communicate something of great value and alter the reader's state of mind. Sophocles' plays about King Oedipus and Homer's Odyssey used tales of gods and heroes to both entertain and warn their audiences about the dangers of hubris. The authors of Hindu literature shared their understanding of the universe through poems, prayers, and dialogues. Throughout the ages, writers have always attempted to convey beliefs, preserve stories, and provide guidance.
As teachers, we often forget about that greater purpose, emphasizing conventions of writing over its heart. Our writing programs ask students to regurgitate somebody else's ideas through rigidly structured essays and reports. Even our creative writing lessons are frequently confined to learning about plot structure (exposition, inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution) and prescribed poetry templates (haikus, tankas, iambic pentameter, sonnets).
Reducing writing to formulas may make it easier to teach and assess, but this method invariably leads to stifled communication. You may remember as a student yourself being forced to produce dull, thesis-driven five-paragraph essays at the end of each summer vacation. Even the creative form of poetry suffers from this kind of assignment. When my son was in middle school, he was asked to write a poem with a metaphor in line 1, a simile in line 2, and onomatopoeia in line 3. He turned in: "Manatees are the cows of the sea / They are as majestic as kings / Moo." While it met his teacher's requirements, it was definitely an inferior exercise for a 6th grader.
If we want students to become better writers and communicators, we need to ensure that they are given multiple opportunities to communicate their ideas freely. Of course, our students need to know about and appreciate various literary forms and structures, but whatever we teach, making meaning should be our priority. When I create opportunities to make writing more meaningful for my students, I see their work gain depth and personality. I see their passion for telling stories and for communicating their beliefs and ideas.

Let Them Get Personal

The first step to make written communication meaningful for students is to personalize the subjects they write about. I create assignments that require students to apply their learning to their own lives. For instance, at the end of our unit on Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers, instead of asking students to rehash what they learned from the text, I invite them to apply some of Gladwell's prerequisites for success (temper, work ethic, birth dates, social connections, supportive families and communities, communication skills, or cultural upbringing) to a person whom they consider to be successful. Their essays have to show whether that person—either a celebrity or someone they know—is a self-made man or woman or merely a lucky individual. The assignment requires both research and original thinking and asks students to create something new out of the material we have learned in class—the highest cognitive skill in the revised Bloom's Taxonomy, according to Sousa and Pilecki (2013).
Last year, thanks to this assignment, my remedial senior English students taught me about celebrities such as Eminem, Drake, Jaden Smith, and Robert Downey Jr. However, the most meaningful essays came from two students who chose to focus on someone they knew closely, which helped them become personally invested in their research and writing. One wrote about his grandfather, who was rapidly succumbing to Alzheimer's disease. The student interviewed his relatives about his grandfather's childhood, successes, and hardships. He looked up relevant articles and obituaries in local newspapers to learn more about his grandfather's friends and mentors. He revised and proofread his paper multiple times in order to make it better. The boy's family also became involved in the project, assisting him whenever they could. When he was finally done with his essay, he visited his grandfather in the nursing facility and read his paper aloud. Even though the boy's grandfather was unable to fully appreciate his grandson's effort, the rest of the family was in tears.
Another student chose to write about his camp director, a gay man who'd grown up in a small community and had come from a financially disadvantaged family. The writer interviewed the director in person and via email; he talked to people who knew him, conducted online research, and ended up sharing his final product with his mentor, too. Both students were so proud of their work that they agreed to present it in front of a visiting committee that was evaluating our school.
This type of personalization can be crafted across the curriculum. If the topic for a research paper in social studies class is the Vietnam War, a student might be encouraged to write an essay about a grandparent who fought in Vietnam, or to compare American soldiers' experiences in Vietnam with his or her relative's service in Iraq. A research topic about nutrition could lead a student to write (with permission) about a relative who has to follow a strict diet due to diabetes or high blood pressure, instead of merely reporting what foods one should or should not eat. A biology experiment could be transformed into a Magic School Bus-type picture book that explains the students' findings to their younger siblings. No matter what the topic, finding ways to help students relate to the topic and apply their creativity to it will yield better writing and more engaged writers.

Beyond Term Papers

A thesis-driven essay, such as a research paper or a literary analysis, is a common form of writing in schools. And while it has its benefits, this kind of essay often discourages students from writing well. In The School Essay Manifesto (2005), Thomas Newkirk explains the conflicts of a thesis-driven essay:
Students are caught in a bind. On the one hand, they are asked to be provocative, to say something 'interesting' about a text. And they are asked to make sure that every point they make is fully supported and that each relates to the major point stated in the first paragraph. They are to be adventurous but cautious; provocative, but fully under control. (p. 39)
This dilemma often leads to perfectly defensible, but ultimately boring, theses and essays in which students state the obvious and achieve no new insight. "If writing became merely an act of transcription, of carrying out detailed plans, its appeal would vanish. Without the lure of uncertainty and surprise, writing would be drudgery," insists Newkirk (p. 51). To alleviate drudgery and to avoid transcription, teachers must consider allowing their students to explore topics more freely, without the confinements of prescribed forms.
One of Newkirk's suggestions is to assign students "reading narratives" (p. 55) instead of literary essays, which is what I do at the end of a short story unit in my AP literature class. I ask my students to explore three short stories of their choice. They are instructed to highlight puzzling and striking words, phrases, or sentences. Their typed-up notes should include their initial observations about the plot, characterization, setting, point of view, imagery, diction, syntax, tone, and theme in each story (Later, I collect their notes as evidence of reading and thinking and assess them as formative assignments based upon the students' overall effort and their completion of the assignment.)
Next, each student chooses the story he or she has found the most intriguing and researches it. Everyone is required to read at least one biographical source and one essay of literary criticism. (Once again, students are expected to highlight anything that might provide them with further insight into the story and its meaning. I collect these highlighted copies as evidence, too.)
At the end of this process, instead of writing an analytical essay, students write a history of their understanding of the story. They describe, chronologically, how their comprehension evolved through rereading and research. The tone of these histories is relaxed, candid, and personal; students are encouraged to use conversational language and personal pronouns. The depth of the resulting analysis of the text and the emergence of metacognitive thinking make this assignment extremely meaningful. Not only do the students choose the subject of the essay (the short story), but they also focus on themselves as learners.
The resulting narratives are usually the most meaningful and memorable writing exercises in this class. One of my students wrote about how surprised she was to find out that each room in Edgar Allan Poe's story "The Masque of the Red Death" represented a phase of human life. Another student managed to unearth unexpected complexity in the seemingly simple short story "The Use of Force" by William Carlos Williams. A couple of students grew to realize that "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" by J. D. Salinger was not a tale about a pedophile, as they had initially presumed.
Such reflections often give students a sense of independence and empowerment. Asking students to describe their journey toward understanding allows them to witness their own learning and awakens another self in them—the life-long learner that Donald Murray (2009) refers to when he says, "The teacher brings the other self into existence, and then works with that other self so that, after the student has graduated, the other self can take over the function of teacher" (p. 91).

Cross That "T" When You Come to It

Nothing kills a student writer's desire to write quite like a teacher's excessive emphasis on writing mechanics—spelling, grammar, and usage. Crossing out a student's errors and reminding her how bad she is at proofreading will only undermine her desire to communicate.
Errors are easy to spot, underline, and cross out, but it is not the correctness that makes somebody's writing good or bad—it's the ideas. If we want students to experience writing as a process of discovery, we should leave proofreading until the end.
If instead we place emphasis on ideas, our students will see that we care about their thinking, which will motivate them to write more and better. As Donald Murray (2009) says:
Many teachers complain that their students can't write sentences. I complain that many of my students write sentences. Too early. Following form, forgetting meaning. Following language toward correctness. For its own sake. Sentences that are like prison sentences. They don't unleash meaning, they contain meaning, compress meaning, squeeze the meaning out of language and leave me with the juiceless skins and pulp …" (p. 103)
Many of the training programs for English teachers encourage us to follow the five steps of the writing process (brainstorm, draft, revise, edit, publish) and to assess our students' writing based upon idea development, organization, and voice prior to assessing word choice, sentence fluency, and conventions (the six traits of writing). Unfortunately, this kind of training is not always available to the teachers of other disciplines, who are often left under the impression that well-proofread writing constitutes good writing. We need to ensure that all teachers understand that allowing students to communicate their ideas is the most important goal of writing, and that grammar comes last.

Writing Is Not a Solitary Act

All writers wish for a responsive audience and a reader's validation of their thinking, though sharing your words with someone else can be stressful. Peer conferences, formal presentations, and submissions of work to magazines and newspapers are all important, but sharing writing in this way can be terrifying for some students. It is essential to provide students with opportunities for informal sharing, too.
Although I love when students read their work in front of the class (and offer extra points if they do), I also encourage sharing creative writing in small groups. After students respond to a writing prompt, I collect their papers (letting them know that if they wish to remain anonymous they can leave their names off the paper) and pass them out to random groups of students. If individuals in the group see their own writing, they can exchange it for a different piece. Then, each group reads their set of papers, selects their favorite piece, and reads it aloud to the rest of the class. My students always look forward to these sessions, and most enjoy seeing their peers laugh and cry as they read their work. And even though this activity may take a whole class period, it is worth the time because it allows writers to communicate with each other, once again making writing meaningful.
Another way I give students an informal audience is by reading and responding to their journal writing. My students are expected to use their journals to reflect on, respond to, find connections within, make predictions about, and evaluate the readings we do in class. Even though it can be challenging to find the time, I make an effort to read all of my students' journal entries, drawing stars next to their insightful and original observations, encouraging further thinking with questions, and responding to their comments on a personal level ("I really liked that movie, too!") As soon as my students realize that I actually read their work, they start writing better because they see that I care about what they have to say.
In 1812, William Wordsworth wrote to his wife, "Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart" (Darlington, 2009). This, too, is what we should wish for our students. School writing needs to become meaningful. It needs to be a mode of communication, not a mode of regurgitation. We must enable our students to make choices, personalize topics, develop insight, write freely, and share in a nonjudgmental environment. If we do so, even uninspired writers can become passionate communicators willing to improve their work.
References

Darlington, B. (Ed.) (2009). The love letters of William and Mary Wordsworth. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Murray, D. (2009). The essential Don Murray: Lessons from America's greatest writing teacher. L. Miller & T. Newkirk (Eds). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Newkirk, T. (2005). The school essay manifesto: Reclaiming the essay for students and teachers. Shoreham, VT: Discover Writing Press.

Sousa, D. A., & Pilecki, T. (2013). From STEM to STEAM: Using brain-compatible strategies to integrate the arts. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

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