Periodic Daydream #9
My mom and I were traveling this weekend to a family event in Stillwater, Minnesota. She is a former high school teacher, so we tend to talk about education more than any other topic. There was a point in the conversation when we were talking about the effectiveness of various teachers and she said to me, “You’ve always learned on your own since you were little and you continue to want to learn. Why do you think you’re like that?” While this characteristic is obvious to anyone that knows me, the reasons why aren’t at all apparent.
When I was a small child, I’m positive the amount of free play and imagination I had were driving forces. While I took dance lessons, much of my time was unstructured play with my sisters and sometimes cousins, or quiet reading in my room. Throughout grade school and high school, I’d be lying if I said grades and adult approval had not motivated my learning to some degree. However, I also know I would have accomplished the learning without the grade attached as well. The learning opportunities I got most excited about were projects and experiences where I had the option to explore a topic of my choice.
I do know that reading and writing have played a central role in my independent learning throughout life, as well as my ability to engage in a chosen project. These are two tasks that require time, focus, and often multiple attempts. I don’t usually procrastinate with these two tasks, and often reread a chapter or revisit my writing even if I’ve edited it two times prior. While many still remember the three R’s (Reading, Writing and Arithmetics), I’m pretty certain reading and writing will continue to hold a central location in learning, and we in education need to keep encouraging our students to pursue these, even if they struggle. (No offense intended to the math teachers I know. A foundational understanding of most topics is essential. However, as technology and times change, it is reading and writing that tend to take the stage whether it’s a formal publication or a post on social media.)
While I teach primarily environmental science and chemistry, increasing student opportunities to write has been a goal of mine this year. Writing can be a scary endeavor for both the teacher and the student. In fact, you’ll frequently hear teachers express their hesitation towards a writing assignment, claiming “I’m not an English teacher!” News flash: Writing is a skill that goes beyond the English class, and it’s a skill like reading that every teacher should spend time focusing on. I can’t think of a single discipline or career that doesn’t involve some form of writing as a necessary skill.
When I started my adventure into increasing writing opportunities, I quickly realized I needed to address the usual student questions. These questions were stifling but the end result was ultimately eye-opening. Stifling because their initial questions made me realize how scripted the writing process was for most students and eye-opening because there are students who have amazing things to say that would not be heard without writing opportunities. Here is a summarized list of the most common questions, along with my usual responses.
Student: How long does it have to be?
Me: I don’t know as long as it needs to be. How long do you think it should be? I care about quality not quantity.
Other variations of this question involved the typical five paragraph essay format-a single paragraph for the introduction, three paragraphs for the body, and a concluding paragraph. While this general format provides structure for students initially, students at the high school and college level need to realize that writing extends outside the box of the five paragraph essay. In fact, if you limit yourself to five paragraphs in some cases, or extend your work to five paragraphs in others you might actually be taking something wonderful and creative and turning it into an encyclopedic excerpt for the boring and dull.
Student: Do I need an introduction and a conclusion?
Me: Do you want your writing to begin and end? How do you plan on grabbing your reader’s attention? Do you plan on providing closure for your reader, or do you want the reader to continue pondering an interesting question or concept?
Of course writing must begin and end. Again I think students have to realize that the introduction and conclusion are the bookends of any piece supporting the middle. Without strong bookends the middle falls apart. Every person has a different writing process. Certain people need an introduction to proceed to the body of their work, while others can skip the introduction initially, preferring to come back to it at a later time once the middle is completed.
I personally feel like the writing process is often rushed for students. This is due to teachers trying to cram too much into the class, week, unit, semester, and year. This is also due the students procrastinating with their writing, not realizing the time that must be devoted to the process in order to really grow as a writer. In this situation, the conclusion is often really redundant or flies at you out of nowhere. I’ve read many papers, where I’m thinking, “yes now this paper is finally going somewhere!” only to realize it’s the fifth paragraph and the starting phrase is “In conclusion,…” AAHHHH No, no, no keep going!
Student: Do I have to write? Can’t I just make a prezi or a google slides presentation instead?
Me: NOOO! We both know you can rock the prezi or the google slides. Writing is a skill that takes practice. We’re going to practice.
Because I teach science classes, students often believe they can talk me out of assigning a writing assignment. Hah! Never. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen some pretty impressive videos and google slides, and I do honor these modes of communication and creativity in my class at times. However, for many students these are the easy way out, and it is really important to expose students to the risk of writing in the science class. This way students can see that writing is not just a skill of the english or social science class but an essential skill for many careers and disciplines.
While my students might see me forcing writing on them, I’m hoping they will grow as writers and eventually learn to value both the frustration and reward that comes with the process. What they may not realize is that I am forcing writing on myself as well, in hopes that I will also grow. I am not the best writer, but I am still writing. Exploring how to support their writing ultimately helps me better understand my own process, a process where we must embrace the struggle but not quit. I believe it is this struggle and resilience to move past the challenge that are necessary for learning to occur. In hopes of inspiring others to write, I will leave you with some wise words of writing encouragement from Ray Bradbury:
“You must write every single day of your life… You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads… may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.”