Teaching Young Writers: Are We Winning the Battle but Losing the War?

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girl-writing-in-grass-300x200I think we can all agree on this: the ability to express oneself effectively in the written word is a good thing. I would even go so far as to say that for a wide range of professions, it’s one of the most useful skills you can have. It comes in mighty handy in personal matters, as well.

So it makes sense that schools spend an awful lot of time trying to get kids to be better writers. I’m all for that. Go writing!

What I’m not always so sure of is how we go about it.

Now before I say another word, please know that I am a huge fan of English teachers and the magic that they work with kids every day. It’s a tough job, with extra hours of grading countless papers, and not nearly as many thank-yous as are richly deserved. (The next time you meet an English teacher, say thank you. I’m serious.)

However the pressures and constrictions they face on what they teach and how they teach it are legion. Here in Massachusetts, (practically the Holy Land of standards-based testing) the Boston Globe recently ran an article titled Mass. wonders whether students being overtested.

“Teachers statewide complain that … preparation for the dizzying array of standardized tests can easily consume about a month of schooling and leave little time for creative projects.”

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that one of the goals of teaching kids to write should be that they continue to want to do it when all the teachers and tests and classrooms are behind them. Further, that making it engaging and creative will inspire the ongoing practice that all writers require to improve.

And I’m going to go out on no limb at all and say that the 5-paragraph essay and the three-page paper on the book they didn’t really want to read in the first place—while they may be necessary to some degree—are not actually the best vehicles for making writing engaging, creative and fun. This in turn is not ideal for to getting young writers to practice, and probably horribly ineffective at inspiring them do it when they leave school and finally have the freedom to do any darn thing they please.

Learning to be a good writer is fundamentally about learning to be a good convincer.

When we write fiction, we’re trying to convince the reader that somewhere, somehow this story is real, and s/he should engage with it as if it is really happening. Fiction only works if the reader, on some level, believes. There is no higher compliment than when a reader says, “This feels authentic.”

When we write non-fiction—such as memoir, a book review, an email to our boss, a love letter, or this essay—we’re trying to convince the reader that what we’re saying is actually true, and that our thoughts have value to him/her.

Good news: There are lots of ways to teach kids how to be convincing in the medium of the written word—and not all of them are as painful as writing a paper on the symbolism in Boring Book #52!

Memoir. Tweens and teens, bless their hearts, tend to be a self-absorbed bunch. This perfectly normal developmental stage can be used in the service of writing by having them talk about themselves. But just because it’s about them and reflects real events (at least marginally) doesn’t mean it can be unconvincing or of little value to the reader. This, in fact, is a real challenge: how can I tell a personal story in a way that others will find worthwhile?

Journalism. News writing is generally about current events (as opposed to 1873) which tends to feel more relevant and engaging. It can involve interviews and attending unusual events (as opposed to sitting home and playing Halo). Its purpose is to provide information to peers and community members (as opposed to just their long-suffering English teachers). And it involves a very clear, concise, facts-based style.

Screenplays. Writing good dialogue is a tremendous challenge for the new writer. It requires close attention to how people express themselves, what they say and don’t say, how information, ideas, and emotions are conveyed verbally. Translating the spoken word into the written word is a fantastic exercise in the art of convincing.

These are just a few examples of different forms of writing that can inspire the young writer to want to learn and practice a skill that we all agree is so critical. Based on my experience of parenting four kids through an excellent public school system … I’m still not convinced that we’re doing enough to make writing engaging and creative—to make it feel good enough for them to do it once letter grades aren’t dangling over their heads anymore. I worry that while we may be winning the standardized-testing battle, we’re losing the love-of-writing war.

I think we can do better. What do you think?

(This piece was originally published by Beyond the Margins on Nov 10, 2014)

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