One of the things I do during my working day is teach kids how to read and write in more sophisticated ways. Writing tends to be a chore for most kids–and writing instruction often doesn’t help by making it a tedious and joyless task. Most of these issues could be solved if we fixed some theoretical malfunctions in the way we teach reading and writing to high school students. Those of us who’ve been through a teacher training program have all been exposed to the term “best practices,” at one point or another. Like so much of our education system, it focuses on the ideal without treating the real. The authors of the influential literacy study Writing Next recommend that teachers provide “students with opportunities to read, analyze, and emulate models of good writing.” [My emphasis].
In the real world, however, you have imperfection far more than perfection. It helps to be able to see the flaws, to learn what not to do. Of course there’s a place to study good writing—it’s essential. But I also think it’s a good idea to read bad books from time to time, and study bad writing. And bad instructional theory. By focusing on best practices we ignore the worst practices that ground the whole profession of teaching English. This is the first part of a series in what we’re doing wrong and how to fix it.
WORST PRACTICE # 1: We make students write about what they don’t know.
It’s the cardinal rule of writing, folks: write about what you know. I can’t remember a how-to book on becoming a writer that doesn’t have that little chestnut featured prominently somewhere. If you don’t know what you’re talking about, if you haven’t lived it or felt it, how would you be able to convince your reader? Now, I understand that some people write about Mars or Middle Earth or Hogwarts and they’ve never been there. I myself wrote about America in the 1870s—but that’s only because I had the time to research it so thoroughly that I wrote as if I had been there. In other words, you don’t need to write about what you know physically but rather psychologically and experientially in every sense of that word. Write about what is real to you—even if it’s an imaginary place. Because if you’re writing about what is real then the writing can’t help but be real. As a writer, you have to be in touch with your inner self and with the world around you. Writing is a response to feeling and being alive.
Now think about high school English writing assignments. As one writer friend of mine put it, “High school English consisted of reading books I didn’t want to read and writing essays about things I didn’t want to write about.” How often are students forced to write essays on assigned topics with which they have no familiarity and no interest? How can a student be expected to care about what he or she is writing when they are not allowed to either choose a topic of interest or include the “I” in their essays?
The most important problem here is that when we ask students to write in high school we too often ask them to write about what they don’t know. As a consequence we alienate students from their own writing process. They feel no investment in it. It’s not about them and in a sense all great writing should be. Writing becomes a method of showing submission to power–to the authority of the expert, who corrects your mistakes and dictates the rules by which you can express yourself. By constantly evaluating them on writing that is neither natural nor interesting to them we further alienate them from the entire process of writing. Putting words on a page becomes a chore, a task, a means to a grade, a hoop to jump through. Real writers don’t have these attitudes about writing. If they did, who would want to spend so much time doing something so unpleasant?