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April 1, 2018
Vol. 75
No. 7

One to Grow On / Writing with 'Babbling Exuberance'

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How can teachers get writers to tap into the need for self-expression?

Instructional Strategies
How can we best teach writing in schools? After many years of experience as a student writer myself, as well as teaching writing and learning from others who teach it, I've thought a lot about this question. Certainly, I still don't have all the answers, but I do have some observations. Here are a few:

Writing Is Hard

There's really nothing natural about writing when you're a kid. Holding a pencil is the first problem. Kids want to grab a pencil like they mean to throttle it—and perhaps they do. Little hands tense up as they jab the pencil into paper and attempt to squeeze out alphabet letters that are, at once, too much alike and too different. The big letters can look different from their junior versions. Then there's this thing about spacing the letters evenly, and there's punctuation to worry about. As if that weren't enough, the writer's brain is supposed to generate ideas that impress a teacher.
There's not a whole lot about the act of writing that's inherently attractive to many young learners. And too many upper elementary, middle school, and high school writers have not yet found reason to jettison their impression that writing is a pain—and painful. The ideas that follow seem important to me in helping young writers discover that the struggle is deeply worthwhile.

We Hear Writing First

For many students, the most powerful motivation to write comes from hearing someone read aloud. The reader may be a parent we love or an older sibling whom we want to emulate. It may be a teacher whose voice makes the words take on three dimensions in our minds. In any case, the reader comes across as someone who cares to share with us a secret place in the mind or heart.
My mom was a librarian and read to me often, especially during my frequent childhood bouts of bronchitis. The words she read sounded magical. My high school English teacher, Ms. Parker, also read aloud often to our class. Her voice had a softness that could reveal humor as well as horror, imagination as fully as hard reality. By the time our class started writing, Ms. Parker had already taken us across a bridge to a fertile place where ideas waited.
In college, one of my English professors was X.J. Kennedy, the noted American poet. He began each class by playing an early stringed instrument and singing poetry from the Middle Ages. He was transported as he sang. We were transported as we listened. He'd pause for several seconds after a song, and then say, "Wow" in his sonorous voice. We inevitably shared the sentiment.
Reading aloud to students is not a waste of time—even as they get older—but rather a profound commendation of wordcraft.

Writing Is About Voice

Most children embrace speech with babbling exuberance. They realize their voice is powerful—with one sound, they can make mommy smile or daddy pick them up and whirl them around. With a word, they can get juice on demand or assert their human right to refuse.
And here's the interesting thing. Rarely does someone teach a child to talk. She listens and mimics. And if she doesn't talk at the same age her older brother did, no one sends home messages suggesting that she's a talking failure. Sure, adults might correct pronunciation from time to time. They assuredly model. They may even offer some extra support for the tricky sounds. But adults don't teach children to talk in the same way they try to teach them to write. Most children learn to talk because they are surrounded by speech that is pleasing to them in a variety of ways. They learn to talk because they have things to say, and they want the world to hear those things.
Writing is another way that young people can impact their world, express themselves, and improve their lot. I wonder if we realize how important it is for children to have an idea they want to share so badly that they put pencil to paper without any sense that writing is a chore. I wonder how often even older students understand that writing is about voice.

A Writing Mentor Can Make All the Difference

Mr. Arnold was my 7th grade English teacher, and at the time, he was new to teaching and not yet particularly skilled in many ways. Nonetheless, he had some good instincts and sometimes trusted them. He presented us with ideas that were appealing—or occasionally appalling—to young adolescents and encouraged us to talk out our conflicting views and pose questions about them. By the time he asked us to write a paper, we were deeply invested in the topic and could hardly wait to get our ideas into the mix. Mechanics came very late in the process, and by then, we cared about those things. "Your writing is a kind of self-portrait," he would say. "Don't sign it until you've got it right."
He also seemed to understand that we would come to writing along different paths. He was watchful of our various points of development, and when he had a sense of our individual needs as writers, he talked with us privately and "changed our assignment" accordingly. One boy in the class hungrily read science fiction because thinking about what might be was what fueled his passion. Another classmate read poems and listened to songs as a way to help her sense how writers express deep feelings through images.
Mr. Arnold's great gift to me came the day after I accidentally left a spiral notebook in my desk. Since it didn't have a name in the front, he flipped through it for a clue about its owner and discovered all the lines of literature from the public library's reference books that I'd been copying. I'd discovered the sounds and rhythms of beautiful language and ached to be able to create that kind of beauty. But I was also self-conscious about these jottings: It seemed lame to copy someone else's ideas into a notebook.
Mr. Arnold understood. He returned the notebook to me and said, "Your assignment for the rest of this marking period is to see how much more of the notebook you can continue to fill with words and ideas from the library, like the ones you've already found. And I'd like it if you could show me a few of your favorites and tell me why you've chosen them."
That moment remains one of the highlights of my career as a student. It affirmed my budding belief that I could be a writer. My teacher understood that recording beauty someone else created was helping me develop an ear for beauty—a sense of its rhythms and pulses. Copying words was not a waste of time. It was a step in a promising direction.
A few years ago, a colleague was visiting an elementary classroom. She walked among the students as they pushed pencils across papers. "What are you writing about?" she asked a girl who was dutifully scribing words on the page in front of her. The girl looked for a moment as though she didn't understand the question, and then responded. "Oh, we don't write about anything. We just write."
Deliver us all from classrooms where we just write.

Carol Ann Tomlinson is William Clay Parrish Jr. Professor Emeritus at the University of Virginia's School of Education and Human Development. The author of more than 300 publications, she works throughout the United States and internationally with educators who want to create classrooms that are more responsive to a broad range of learners.

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