When I was in school, the papers that got the highest grades held the reader at a safe arm's length. They tended to pontificate. I remember being told never to express a personal opinion unless asked. And never use 'I,' which was always tough to figure out: Who else did the reader think was writing the piece if not 'I,' after all? My assigned readings, however, were passionate, opinionated, stylistic, and fascinating. But when it came to my own writing, on went the straitjacket, and I wound up pumping out stuff that was stilted, cold, and distant. It was boring--but it always got high marks. Unfortunately, this tradition is still alive in many of the classrooms I visit. And more than likely, something that's boring to read was boring to write. It will be nearly impossible to get students engaged in writing if all the excitement's been drained out of it (103).
Why is it that students are so often shoehorned into five-paragraph, formal, voiceless writing?
It's easy to teach a formula. It's easy to grade a formula. It's easy to keep control of the process when you have a classroom of kids.
The question: why?
The answer: easy.
The result: boring!
It happened to me as a student. The result was that I thought I had to use big words and sound like something I wasn't. Stilted, cold, and distant didn't describe me as a person, but they certainly described my writing. Sadly, the habit went deep; I still fight to get out of the ditch I thought was mine.
I want to give my students something far better. I want them to be free to experiment, to create, to be themselves. I don't want to jam them into a specific style, draining the excitement out of writing; I want them to discover that they have something to say, and they can say it well with their own voice. They can be the ones writing passionate, opinionated, stylistic, and fascinating pieces.
What can we do to make writing more exciting for our students?
- Let them choose their own topics.
- Don't lock them into one format (i.e. the five-paragraph essay). Allow them to experiment with different genres.
- Give them a reason for writing that goes beyond the teacher and a grade, offering assignments and projects that captivate their attention.
- Integrate writing into everything they do rather than relegating it to worksheets.
- Remember that writing is a process. Editing is one part of the process; it's not the focus. It's important for published pieces to be correctly spelled, capitalized, and punctuated, but if mechanics are the primary focus during the process, a student can end up with a correct, but lifeless, paper. (That described my writing, too.)
- Look at writing you enjoy. Do any of the pieces follow the five-paragraph format? Does every paragraph have a topic sentence? Does every sentence have a subject and a verb? Likely not. Invite your students to look at writing they enjoy, observing it closely and imitating it.
It is true that you invite risk when you walk away from formulaic writing assignments, but you also welcome creativity, thinking, and passion. Instead of reading a predictable piece that you will soon forget, you will likely read one that comes from the heart, leaving a mark on yours.