Everyone has their own passion in life, and sometimes your passion may get a frown of confusion, or a questioning look of “really?”. Who we are and who we want to be is something you free from your heart, but not everyone sees it the same way you do. Throughout my years I have discovered that there are many people out there who are completely confused by my love for writing. The problem starts in school the moment an English teacher gives a writing assignment, and all the students moan like wounded animals. My confusion… why are they so upset? Years later the realization is that the unhappiness lies in the fact that the topic is chosen for them. How can they express themselves, or let their creative juices flow, if they are being told what to write about. “Writing may have little effect if students dismiss it as unimportant, if they lack confidence or motivation to write, or if they have a poor approach to learning. …for students to learn from writing they must learn which strategies will encourage learning. They need to know when and how to use such strategies, and why they are valuable” (Levin 229). Because of a lack of enthusiasm from students in their English Class when it comes to writing, it seems that more interaction, creative choices, and a little fun will make them want to learn and enjoy it more.
It really bothers me when the first words out of a person’s mouth are negative comments and facial expressions about the career I have chosen for myself. Just because they didn’t like their English class doesn’t mean it’s an awful path to choose. Teaching is a noble profession, and there is nothing wrong with having a passion for writing. Honestly, I have found that the whole problem lies in the way the classes are being taught, and the curriculum the teachers are told to follow and enforce. There is no other way to explain the problem other than the fact that the students are just not interested, they are easily bored, and most of the time what they are supposed to learn is not being conveyed in a way for them to fully understand. “While there are studies of college and university students, little has been done to understand how elementary and secondary school children perceive writing. Some studies examine the attitudes and feelings of elementary and secondary school student towards writing assignments, but do not investigate children’s approaches to writing or their views on the function of writing tasks” (Levin 229). In other words, there are no studies being done early enough to see there is a problem in order to fix it, or at least make it better, before they reach high school and college age. By the time they reach college they are so fed up with reading Literature and writing papers with the same boring topics, there is no way to reel them back in.
Taking a new approach would drastically change the opinion of students taking English and Literature classes now, and bring in more students to take them later on. “The assumption that writing is not ‘just’ a way to express or display our knowledge. Writing in itself is a fundamental mode of learning, by allowing students to reflect on what they have learned, clarify their thoughts, stimulate and foster their ability to organize knowledge and reflect upon beliefs. It also encourages analytical criticism and the development of ideas, and provides an important discursive tool for organizing and consolidating basic ideas into more coherent and better structure knowledge” (Levin 228). This is definitely more than most students have ever read into the process of writing for their classes, any of them for that matter, not just English and Literature. Having taken my own poll of several friends, colleagues and students at the college where I work, the results were all the same. They all felt they were forced to write on topics they didn’t fully understand or care enough about. Several even mentioned the “compare and contrast” essays were the worst of all, detailing how it was the worst one to be made to write. When asked why, “because half the time I couldn’t understand the two novels I had to read for the class, so how was I supposed to compare and contrast them” (Anonymous Student). Alas, another problem left unaddressed because the teachers in the school system have to follow a certain curriculum, but that in no way means they can’t spice up the lesson a little. Yes, the book list has to be completed and papers have to be written, but the way it is taught is not specified. What if the teachers incorporated more modern examples to teach these same old tales? Explain the plot using objects and language that is easier for the students to relate to, in turn making it easier for them to retain the information.
We are all well aware that you find writing in other classes outside of English and Literature as well. Another problem seen over and over again is the fact that the quality of writing has decreased, and no one seems to care enough to fix the problem. “…if writing is to be improved on a grand scale, the teacher must relate ‘the process of writing to the process of learning a given subject’. Furthermore, a subject-area teacher (such as a social studies teacher) must emphasize the importance of writing in different modes (the expressive and poetic as well as the transactional)” (Carter 1-2). I found it interesting how this source insisted that the stereotype of English teachers being the only ones to teach writing should be a thing of the past. Carter mentioned that students write just as much in their social studies class as they do in English, so the responsibility should be shared between the two teachers for these subjects. I had never looked at it that way. I am one of the ones that followed the stereotype as well. Learning to write correctly was for English class, despite the fact that we wrote papers for other classes as well. No one truly realizes the importance of writing, no matter what class you happen to be taking.
What if we gave the students a voice in all this? Would they really be heard? Would changes be made just because they ask for them? “Student voices have not fared well in American schools. Whether spoken or written, they have too often been reduced to lifeless, guarded responses – responses to the questions and assignments of powerful others, responses formed in the shadow of teacher scrutiny and evaluation. Given the fate of student voices, it is difficult to believe that traditional schooling contributes to the flourishing of individuality and democratic decision-making” (Lensmire 261). This helps to prove how students are tired of what feels like the same thing over and over again. They want, and with good reason, to be heard loud and clear. Lensmire brought up another good point in his article, “Workshop advocates emphasize students’ desire to express their unique selves in writing, and how traditional writing instruction frustrates this desire” (261). Workshops are a great idea to get students back into the feel for writing, and to help them realize that the written word is a powerful way to express yourself. As a writer, I know I am much better at getting my point across in writing that I ever could verbally. I’m always afraid I will forget to say something, or that my tone will not be quite right. I am much more confident in my writing.
Ideas for change are great, but what do we have to base this change from? Has there been any research conducted showing we need to reel the students back in? ”Plenty of research shows that student writing skills have been poor for some time, at least since 1970. Moreover, there is evidence that student writing is getting worse” (Carter 286). The study showed that “graduate students do not write much more skillfully than the average high school student” (Carter 286). I found this information to be very sad. The problem lies in the fact the schools and teachers are more concerned about state test scores and ranking than they care about the writing skills of the students they are allowing to graduate. It is understandable that the schools need rankings in order to get proper state funding in order to properly function, but they are doing so at the risk of the students’ creative education. “While we do not offer an exhaustive list of reasons the illuminates the full portrait of decline in student writing, we believe the following issues strongly contribute to it. Secondary and higher education has been affected in recent decades due to budget cuts, an increasing emphasis on national standards, and the influx of market-based logic in education. Some see these changes as having a positive impact on instruction and learning; others believe it is more than coincidental that a substantial decline in student writing ability has accompanied these shifts and developments” (Carter 286-287). It is as though the schools have lost sight of the important combination or mix to make their students successful and well rounded.
Through my research, I came across several articles with wonderful ideas to help students get their creative juices flowing without feeling forced into the mold of the usual writing assignments. As mentioned at the top of page five of this paper, a workshop that meets maybe once a week could be something simple a school incorporates perhaps into their afterschool program, or maybe even as part of the gifted programs. A challenge, or something to strive for, makes a stronger willed student who isn’t afraid to think outside the box. “…workshop advocates do not believe in assigned topics because this takes control over the writing away from students, does not allow them the privileges of ‘real authorship’. Students as authors, then, have the right to identify, for themselves, topics and purposes for writing that are worthy of their time and effort” (Lesmire 262). Imagine that, giving students creative freedom to come up with their own topics to write about. The possibilities of what they will create are endless, especially if it is something they are passionate about, or even if they are simply freeing all the creative energy they’ve kept bottled inside.
One of the interesting sources I managed to find discussed how technology and social media could be used to help the younger generation grasp concepts a little better than just going through their textbooks. “…students were able to interpret, analyze and evaluate this social communication in a way that allowed them to reach their own conclusions. Social networks are in fact intriguing places and spaces for language development and experimentation which can be used as interesting teaching tools to assist students to understand the functions and practices used in both formal and informal language” (Watson 1). Though most educators do not see this method as a proper learning tool, it is difficult to ignore its use to get “through to” our youth today. Use it as an example, use it together with other learning tools, but for the sake of our students we should use it. What better way to blend the learning and get the point across than to compare certain modes with social media. I found this source to be quite interesting, and of course, it was also two sided. While there are those that agree it could be helpful, we also have those that think social media is not the proper tool to teach our children the importance of writing. “Whether we agree that this mode of communication is degrading our language base into the future has become irrelevant, as educators we have no choice but to recognize it for what it is, a new subset or branch of our cultural and social language” (Watson 2).
We already see the creative uses our youth have developed when using the internet and social media. All that needs to be done now is hone those skills into the classroom where they can be expanded and perfected for their use as adults in the real world. My thesis for this paper came from the article The Sixth Paragraph by Paul Lynch we read for class. It was an eye opener, as well as brilliant. The article was a perfect example of what I would love to see in classrooms now, and wish it was utilized when I was in school. The boring five paragraph form essays were the dreaded monster of every English class we had growing up. Why was it always taught and used? Because it was easy to teach, easy to use and easy to grade. Everything was about ease instead of focusing on creativity and whether or not something was being learned and retained. Lynch states that “we schoolmasters have tended to favor “demonstration of understanding” and “knowledge-as-information,” so our notion of the essay has tended to ask students to show knowledge that they already have rather than asking them to discover knowledge that they don’t have. We want students to prove, not wonder” (293). However, “that’s what the best essays do: they make you wonder” (Lynch 295). Personally, I know I would rather read and grade a creative piece that shows what the student was able to discover when they set their hearts and minds to it, rather than the same old “analyze this” essay. It’s all a matter of adapting to new and exciting things in order to keep the students interested and engaged.
My ultimate goal with my career path is to teach a creative writing course (or two or three). Again, this brings about the sour faces and negative commentary, but I ignore it because the heart wants what the heart wants. With the way curriculums are put together, benefiting the school standards, there doesn’t seem to be any room for any alternatives. The schools and the Board of Education need to be a little more open minded, as well as open to suggestions to new ways of teaching the same old thing. The Australian Literacy Educators’ Association had wonderful ideas for getting students going in the right direction when it comes to writing. As a matter of fact, I’m going to save this article to utilize if I ever reach my goal of teaching a writing class. “We’re all writers here… It doesn’t matter how long the session goes; everyone is a writer including you the teacher. Everyone in the room is poised on the brink of discovering something about themselves, of giving shape to something they didn’t know they had inside them. Being a writer means finding the right words for a feeling or an image; it means delighting in the language. We all start from exactly the same place” (Laing 1). I could not have expressed this better myself if I tried. Harry Laing is a freelance writer, among other things, who travels to different schools to teach a creative writing workshop. His ideas to get the students juices flowing, even those who didn’t think they had any juice in them to begin with, are brilliant.
Laing is quoted as saying, “I will admit that it’s not easy to dream up a good new exercise, but it’s always worth the effort. I’d be sad if too many creative writing classes fell back on a more formulaic way of doing things. …I’m aware that writing formulas can be very helpful for more reluctant writers and might even be a useful springboard to more interesting and original work, but I can’t help thinking that they are hardly an expression of originality” (2). It would be so much more interesting and entertaining to see different opinions and stories displayed on the walls of a classroom or hallway, than to see the same essay and form thirty times. Who’s to say that students will not respond to being given more creative freedom? I think drawing them out of their shells will help them blossom and grow, showing those that follow how wonderful the written word can be and how much more expressive they can become. I love all the examples Laing gives for different exercises for his creative writing workshops. Some of my favorites: He uses ‘secret writing’ as an ice breaker to get the workshop going. “It involves writing down whatever comes into the head. I ask the students to imagine the words flowing down their arms and out of the pen: ‘keep the pen on the paper. Don’t worry about punctuation or even whether it makes sense.’ This is a great way to slide past self-consciousness” (Laing 2). He also uses simple topics, such as ‘describe yourself in ten words’ and ‘five lies about an object in the room’. These topics can open the doors to several interesting stories and poems. His list of ideas goes on and on, and though I would love to share them, this is only a ten page research paper.
Students (of all ages) could learn and discover so much more if teachers would just let them wonder. It is almost as though we are stunting their growth by dimming their creative light. If the schools could just realize that both teachers and students could broaden their horizons together with just a little creative freedom, then we could eliminate that bad taste English and Literature seems to leave in the mouths of so many. All that is needed are a few minor changes here and there to the current curriculums. Add a more modern twist to the lessons being taught so that the students have something ‘real’ and ‘now’ they can relate to. Having an open-mind will open doors in their minds that have been left shut for so many years of their schooling. Imagine the wonderful things we could all create with just a little more slack from the leashes the Board of Education is tightly gripping.
Carter, John Marshall. “The Social Studies Teacher As Writing Coach.” Clearing House 64.5 (1991): 346. Academic Search Premier. Web. 6 May 2015.
Carter, Michael, and Heather Harper. “Student Writing: Strategies to Reverse Ongoing Decline.” Academic Questions 26.0 (2013): 285-295. Web. 30 April 2015.
Laing, Harry. “An Atmosphere of Possibility: Teaching Creative Writing.” Literacy Learning: The Middle Years 22.1 (2014): n. pag. Web. @ May 2015.
Lensmire, Timothy J. “Rewriting Student Voice.” Journal of Curriculum Studies 30.3 (1998): 261-291. Web. 6 May 2015.
Levin, Tamar, and Tili Wagner. “In Their Own Words: Understanding Students Conceptions of Writing through Their Spontaneous Metaphors in the Science Classroom.” Instructional Science 34.3 (2006): 227-228. Web. 6 May 2015.
Lynch, P. (2011). The Sixth Paragraph: A Re-Vision of the Essay. Writing Spaces: Readings on Writing, 2, 286-301.
Watson, Pauline. “Exploring Social Networking: Developing Critical Literacies.” Alabama Virtual Library. Education Resource Information Center, 2012. Web 29 April 2015.