Encouraging young people to love writing: A enthusiastic "celebrity" can make a difference.
That's me up there, in the hot seat in front of a school media center filled with middle schoolers. I was a visiting "celebrity" author and my intentions were good: get these kids to see writing as a wonderful adventure rather than a hideous, boring, and despicable chore.
An insane expectation? First, I had try to get into the mind of the average 6th grader (OMG). What was going on inside that brain, overstimulated as it was by the infinite digital excitements of gaming and Internet social networks? Why did they love reading Harry Potter and love texting and emailing, but hate classroom writing assignments?
I took stock of my prior knowledge. As a professional who spent thirty-two years working in the public schools as a speech-language pathologist, I knew a few critical facts:
- While human speech--talking--is a hugely complex but natural process generally mastered by the age of three or so, writing is not.
- No, writing is a hugely complex language skill that is not acquired without intense, long-term instruction in the correct use of its seemingly endless, persnickety, idiotic, and stupid conventions; it is, in fact, an unnatural or "overlayed" skill.
- Humans are gregarious, social creatures and anything that feeds into and supports that social gregariousness will tend to develop rapidly and even joyfully, e.g. talking to friends, or exchanging blips of friendly chatter on FaceBook or Twitter. And, better yet, when writing on these social networks, those persnickety, idiotic, and dumb grammatical rules can be officially ignored thus making the experience even more joyful.
- Classroom room writing assignments that are not related to socializing and which require the exacting use of grammar and spelling rules will be seen as boring, difficult, rotten, dumb, and despicable.
How then, to approach the problem?
- Break up the bad attitudes, confound the resistance, make them drop their guards by bringing in a "real" published author. It will be helpful if this author has had lots of experience presenting dog-and-pony shows in front of large groups of middle schoolers and is loud and enthusiastic and has had some (bad) acting experience.
- This author will then read a little from his books and answer questions about being a writer. Surprisingly for kids who hate writing, there will be a lot of very good questions and then he will have the students write a very short beginning of a story and give them the opportunity to come up and read it aloud in front of their classmates and....
- ....teachers will suddenly realize that students actually love writing, they just hate writing assignments that have nothing to do with the excitement of socializing with their friends or making up wild stories, and so....
- ....after the visiting author finishes an entire day of talking to class after class of students and has no voice left and leaves the school dazed and very much in need of a beverage, the teacher can capitalize on the short-lived enthusiasm for writing he has left behind.
- How to do this? Give even the most mundane writing exercise the thrill of the social network by relating it to important things in their lives and then encourage them to come up into the "author's chair" in front of the class, and read part of what they have written.
- Do this on a regular, weekly basis, and with luck and skillful, underhanded, sneaky, pedagogical manipulations, the enjoyment of this type of writing will generalize to other more academic writing assignments.
- And that is the key to this process: If students have an enjoyable writing experience once a week, the skills aquired and the improved attitude will impact other writing assignments and they won't even notice it.
I've done this quite a few times and it does seem to work. As you can imagine, the onus then falls on the poor language arts teacher to keep the enthusiasm going. Writing an essay on, say, Benjamin Franklin, is not seen as quite as enticing a project as emailing a friend. But why not? In fact, why not have them email a friend about Benjamin Franklin. He was not exactly a boring guy and having students find the fun and funny or even scary things he did and let them write report it in prose that uses words in a creative, off-beat way can help keep the enthusiasm for writing alive.
In the end, as they mature, students must learn that some writing assigments are just going to be boring. There is no way around it. It's life. Get the job done and get over it. Still, I have found that in most writing assignments, there is room for a little creative fun with words and language and if we can pass this along to our students, it can have a big impact on their education and, eventually, on their careers.