Why teach writing in school

In 1991, a young English teacher (Sarah Reeve) at the school where I was principal asked me to write an essay for a book that she was publishing. It was a collection of poems by her middle school students. Earlier this year while I was visiting his classroom in Simms, Larry Singleton mentioned that essay to me. I don’t know where he had come across a copy of Spirit Whispers. I had forgotten the book and the essay, but mention of it reminded me of a particularly warm and hopeful period of my life, and I dug the book out of a box of things that for various reasons I hadn’t thrown out. I decided not to throw it out again.

I’ve divided my life equally between sitting alone struggling with words as a writer and standing publicly before classes struggling with words as a teacher. Words. We live with them the way goldfish live in water. Do you think goldfish ever notice the water?

The work of writing is the work of learning to pay close, even passionate, attention to what is always before us. To make what has become invisible through familiarity strange and wild again, so that we can see it.

The strangeness of being talking creatures is stranger even than the howling of wolves. Why do they howl? Because they are lonely? Because they need to hear other voices out there, throughout the wilderness?

And why do we talk? Because we, like the wolves, are incomplete in ourselves and need words to make the connections that make us whole? Humans are the most social of creatures; they become what they are by being caught up in talk, and they live, for better or worse, by talking. We can judge the quality of our lives by the quality of the talk that engages us.

Writing is an advanced form of talk that lets us make deeper and farther connections than we could if we were limited to our voices. Some of the most important conversations I’ve had in my life were possible because humans have been given the gift of writing. When I was nineteen years old, lost and confused in a world at war, where none of the people I met each day had answers to the questions that haunted me, I found a little book by Thoreau. He talked about his own solitude in the woods over a hundred years before I was born, about being free in spite of living in a society of slaves. He was for me a sane voice in an insane time, and he helped me make it back home.

After the war there were many other writers that helped me make my way; Homer talked to me about the necessity one faces to string his own bow and fight for his place if he wants to reclaim it from those who take what they do not intend to care for, Plato talked to me about his faith that beneath the world of appearances where things to wrong and people get hurt is a purer and more durable world that we can learn to see if we want to badly enough, Rilke talked to me about the difficult labor of finding out who he really was and staying true to it in a world that wanted him to be all sorts of other things.

There are many reasons to encourage young people to struggle at learning to write. It’s true that millions of dollars are lost to business each year because of unclear communications and that many employers are willing to pay good money to people who can commit thoughts to paper clearly. It’s true that it’s nearly impossible for humans to think long and complicated thoughts clearly without the aid of writing, of revising and polishing and expanding. And it’s true that we cannot live freely unless we can think freely, and that we cannot think freely unless we spend the necessary hours practicing. It’s true that the survivial of our democracy depends on our young people struggling for hours to get words right, to learn what words can and cannot do, to become familiar enough with the ways of words to recognize when words are being used to control and manipulate them, so they can stay free.

But there’s another reason for learning to write that’s closer to the reason that Homer and Plato and Rilke wrote and to why wolves howl. It has to do with the predicament every human finds himself or herself in at some time in life: a feeling of incompleteness.

As we are growing up, we are immersed in human talk: our parents, our teachers, our church leaders, our friends. Later, more and more talk surrounds us: advertisements, politicians, bosses, newspapers, television, billboards, radios, classmates. We are awash in oceans of words. In all of it, who are we, or even where are we? If we never take the time to answer seriously those questions, in a very real sense we are not really living our own lives. We are carried here and there by images from commercials or movies, by offhand comments of other students or teachers. And we are likely to feel somewhat empty.

The real work of writing is getting in touch with that voice within each of us that is really ours. When a person sits down with pencil or paper or in front of a word processor, the words that float to the top of the mind first are not usually the real words. They are the voices that others have filled us with. We are prone to speak in other people’s voices: the voice of the teacher (we know what he or she wants to hear, we think); the voice of our friends (we know what would make the right impression on them, we think); the voice of the church (we know what we are supposed to be thinking, we think); and so on endlessly.

But beneath all these voices, so quiet we sometimes don’t hear it at all, is a voice saying what it thinks, what it feels. Maybe what it’s saying would be unpopular. Maybe it doesn’t sound smart and sophisticated. Maybe some people would disapprove of it. We have a tendency to hide it, to avoid it. If we do, we are missing the chance to develop the only acquaintance that we will always be able to turn to no matter how things go in the world. Marvin Bell has commented that his progress as a writer is a matter of becoming less and less ashamed of more and more. That is, we grow as writers by becoming more and more honest about what we really do think and what we really do feel.

Each of us has a unique experience in this world. No one else has grown up in the same family (even your brothers and sisters live in a different family, since they are not their own brother or sister), no one else has seen what you saw at breakfast this morning, or heard what you heard after supper last night. The real work of learning to write is the work of learning to find the meaning of the life that has been given to you and to nobody else.

The more we get in touch with that life through writing, the more secure we become in the world. Many things that people want from life, when they get them, they find that they aren’t nearly enough. Money, fame, clothes, cars--all these things can leave us too empty to bear. Our popular media are full of stories of people who got all these things and yet found life not worth living. But if what we learn to want from life is to experience it, and to understand it, by spending some time each day writing about our experiences and what we feel about them, we begin to find riches that will never abandon us. A few of us might leave words such as Homer’s or Plato’s or Rilke’s that help thousands of others understand their experiences, but most of us won’t.

Each of us can, however, make a real contact with our true selves. Only when we have done that can we begin the work of making real contact with other people. And there is nothing more wonderful or more worth our time in this life than these two things.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 03/30 at 06:47 PM
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2006 Montana Heritage Project


Reforms Required to Engage Boys

Here are 12 of the 52 recommendations from Australian researcher Ian Lillico:

As writing is a major area of deficiency for boys it is important that boys should communicate before writing something - this should be done at school or at home using a variety of techniques and models. When boys talk through things before writing their writing fluency and volume is dramatically increased.

All writing for boys up to the end of their compulsory school years should be done within teacher-prepared templates or scaffolds. Teachers should hand out the requisite number of pages required for the boys to fill in with headings and the number of lines required for each section. Eventually boys will intrinsically expand their writing as they enter the post-compulsory schooling years.

Adolescent and teen boys and girls wear a mask to protect themselves from bullying and to hide behind rather than show their real selves. We must train teachers and parents not to communicate with these masks, but to talk only with the real boys behind these masks. Boys are very vulnerable and protect themselves from put downs with these cool masks but must be taught to take them off regularly if they are to lead a normal life and come to terms with their feelings. Drama is a useful subject where boys can take their mask off in a safe environment or put on another mask and act out roles they would otherwise not play.

When boys are given responsibility they grow. If, later, that responsibility is taken away again, we will face boys who disengage and become increasingly hostile and unmanageable. Schools must be particularly aware of this as boys progress annually through classes - that the degree of responsibility gradually increases from year to year.

Boys need empowerment in schools. When boys have a say in what is going on around them they engage. If they have no say they disengage as it is someone else’s rules - not theirs. They should play a part in deciding school, classroom and home rules. Student councils need to have widened powers and become the spokespeople for students.

Boys need to reconnect with nature. It is important for boys to do the type of activities men were designed for - hunting, fishing, crabbing, camping, etc. as these give boys confidence that they can do something. It teaches them that they can provide for the table - fish, game, etc and this brings out the hunter/gatherer instinct in boys. At every opportunity they must be challenged by nature and come to understand the forces of nature and where they fit in the universe.

At every opportunity both at home and at school, boys should be given opportunities to reflect. They should reflect on masculinity and on life in general. Posters in classrooms, icons around the school, rituals, discussion groups and debates are some strategies that should be employed.

Parents and teachers should never shame boys. The shaming language “How could you!” should change to “What has happened?” so as not to initiate the shame response. Once the shame response is activated, boys clam up and disengage from conversation with a corresponding deterioration of the relationship between them and the adult concerned.

Adults need to be optimistic about the future so that boys will be also. Our media is very negative and doom and gloom is in our papers and lounge room every day of the week. Adults must balance the negativity with hope and optimism as many boys fear the future, are anxious about their future lives as men and often don’t want to grow up.

Boys must be given the keys to communicate and write about their feelings and emotions. They will learn to communicate feelings when the important adults in their lives do the same - especially males (Fathers and Teachers). Boys basically write basically to communicate information and fact. They must learn to be more expansive in their writing and attempt to communicate feelings as girls tend to do in their writing.

Teachers must explicitly explain the relevance of topics being taught to boys and attempt to integrate new concepts into existing ones. If (after a great deal of deliberation) no relevance can be found - DON’T teach that topic.

When assignments or questions seem to open ended and reflective - boys often put off completing the work until the last minute as the task seems too daunting for them as they prefer shorter, structured, more closed tasks. It is important for teachers to give boys work that first enables them to get success and then leads them onto more challenging, open-ended tasks within the same assignment. Once they achieve success at easier, more closed questions at the beginning of the assignment, they are more likely to continue with it.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 03/29 at 09:51 PM
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2006 Montana Heritage Project


Lowering standards through low-quality testing

Michael Winerip writing in the New York Times:

Last year, Connecticut filed suit against the federal Department of Education, contending that federal officials had failed to pay the cost of all the tests required by No Child Left Behind. While the suit got much news media play, many of the underlying testing issues were missed.

Connecticut wants to maintain its state tests, which feature many essay questions and problems that require students to explain their work. The state maintains that to administer these tests every year from third to eighth grade, as the federal law requires, will cost $8 million more than federal financing provides.

In a May 3, 2005, letter, the federal education secretary, Margaret Spellings, said that while Connecticut’s tests “are instructionally sound, they go beyond what was contemplated by N.C.L.B.” Federal officials suggested that Connecticut switch to multiple-choice tests and eliminate writing tests to cut costs.

For many, the Connecticut lawsuit is a pivotal moment. Will the law’s testing demands raise national education standards or lower them?

I hope when the tangle over who should pay is settled, the people of Connecticut still use quality measures.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 03/29 at 09:28 PM
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2006 Montana Heritage Project
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