Last week the National Council of Teachers of English sponsored the National Day on Writing. They celebrated writing with a social media campaign which asked people to share why they write using the hashtag #WhyIWrite.
Unfortunately, even though there were many interesting ways to incorporate the day into my classroom, I didn’t have much time to add a new activity to my curriculum lessons.
Nevertheless, I still wanted to acknowledge the day. So at the last minute, I looked at my empty bulletin board and decided my students would write tweets explaining why they write (thanks Glitter Meets Glue and Presto Plans for the clip art and exit slips).
Most students were excited to complete this activity, but of course, there are students who don’t enjoy writing, so I gave them permission to be honest. This resulted in a handful of tweets that said they write “because I’m forced to” or “because I want to pass English.” As a person who loves to write, these responses made me sad, so I’m pondering the following questions: why do we make students write? what do we require students to write? and how do we make students write?
The obvious answers are that we ask students to write to pass standardized tests, to meet course requirements, and to prepare them for college and work. We identify purposes such as “writing to inform,” “writing to explain,” and “writing to persuade,” or we assign argumentative, narrative, and literary analysis essays.
Thinking about how to implement best practices for writing instruction is not a new idea for me as I have worked with the Eastern Shore Writing Project, an affiliate of the National Writing Project, for many years. In fact, this summer I interned as a facilitator at our Invitational Summer Institute (ISI) where teachers from around the region in diverse grade levels and contents developed teaching strategy toolboxes for writing instruction to use in their classrooms.
What I was reminded of this summer, though, is that a primary purpose for writing is to connect with others. Writing for human connection reminds us that we are not alone in this world. Our stories connect us through our fundamental human experience. We are in this life together – whether the people we write for are our family, friends, community members, or seemingly strangers from around the world. Most importantly, writing for human connection helps us understand one another, build empathy, and hopefully, create a more peaceful world.
Regrettably, with testing mandates and curriculum requirements in mind, teachers may neglect to incorporate writing for human connection. But it’s important, especially if we want to encourage our reluctant writers to feel positive about writing. Even I need to remember that sometimes we have to do what’s best for our students, no matter what pressures we experience from outside of the classroom. Students want to write to express their feelings and to have their voices heard by others.
So how can teachers incorporate more writing for human connection? Here are some possibilities:
Regularly let students write about their feelings, opinions, and reflections on a host of topics. This writing should be informal and can take various formats such as diary entries, letters, lists, webs, etc. This can be intimidating for a teacher who then asks, how will I grade these? And maybe the answer is that it’s best not to grade many of these journals. Maybe it’s okay to collect them occasionally and ask students to choose which journal they want you to grade.
Give students choices and creative opportunities in their writing whenever possible. One way I accomplish this is to provide a “menu” of writing activities that students select from. For instance, when my students complete their reading of an excerpt from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond, they can choose from nine activities. Some of these include reflecting and writing about nature, researching and writing about the Tiny House Movement, or writing an imaginary diary entry from Thoreau’s perspective of life in current society.
To help students connect with others, let students share their writing. This does not have to be done with every assignment or always have to be in whole class discussion, but there should be frequent times for students to share in partners or small groups. Teachers can also display student writing on classroom bulletin boards, school showcases, or encourage students to publish their writing in school newspapers, local publications, or online forums.
A participant from this summer’s ISI gave each of us a plastic egg with a paper that said, “Your idea can change the world.” Teachers should encourage students to change the world with the ideas that they express through their writing. Call students “authors” and reward them for sharing their writing. Sometimes I offer enrichment points to students who will read their writing aloud in front of the class.
The most rewarding outcome of this summer’s internship was the opportunity to write for myself. In years past, I had written eighty pages of a memoir but had stopped because of writer’s block. By responding and writing to daily journal prompts at this summer’s ISI, I moved past my writer’s block and began to once again work on my memoir. Hopefully, just as the ISI motivated me, I can encourage students to share their voices.
How do you help students write for human connection? I would love to try out some of your ideas. Please share in the comments below: