What is Writing?: A Revealing Conversation with 9th Graders

writing-a-letter

My first week at my new school went well. I was asked by most of my friends and family how I felt about my first week, and I told them the truth: ‘It was wonderful; they’ve (the students) already taught me a lot.’ And it’s true; they have taught me a lot about both my classroom, myself, and them as students collectively. My biggest takeaway, however, centers on what I learned about their perceptions of what writing is and what writing isn’t.

I used what is commonly called ‘chalk talk’ (I call it board talk) with my 9th graders this past Friday. The activity is meant to help elicit some basic form of critical thinking. Particularly, it is simply a question that gets posted on the board for students to answer. Ideally, students see the question, begin quiet reflection on it, and then come up to the board when they’re ready and write an answer to the question, or even a reply to a previous answer provided by another student.

The activity is a great way to get students (especially your quieter students) a chance to give reflective feedback on the question you posit. I have found it to be almost always successful; it provides me a starting place for a class discussion, or a catalyst to a mini-lecture I might be giving.

My question for my 9th graders was simply: What is writing?

On the surface, the question appears simple, but I think most reading this can see just how quickly this becomes a complicated answer. My first period didn’t take to the question very quickly. I’d say we all waited about five minutes before someone became bold enough to go to the board and try to answer the question. My third and fourth period responded quicker, but the case was the same for all three that only about seven or eight students from a class of thirty plus braved commenting on the board. (No one wants to look foolish–or wrong–right?) The answers revealed what I imagined it would. The reality of what students have come to know writing as could be interpreted as disheartening. To a degree, I found that to be the case on Friday myself, but it opened up a conversation that was potentially powerful for student and teacher alike. How powerful? I don’t know. It’s far too early to tell.

Here are two samples of the responses I got:

20140808_081658 20140808_111908

What’s noticeable about both sets of responses is that they are a bit limited. I don’t blame my students though. No, the blame squarely rests on the shoulders of myself and my educator peers. If we as literacy teachers do anything well at the middle school and high school level, it’s bill writing as a simple means to an end–nothing more in many cases than a series of letters, words, “scribbles” on paper that are meant to be organized in just such a way to appease the audience it is meant for–the teacher. Now there are some nice nuggets in those images too. I enjoyed the students who mentioned ‘texting’ or even better ‘Inspiring other people with situations you have been through.’ (I’m always a sucker for empathy!) Still, the replies are as stilted as you’d imagine because students don’t see writing in school outside of the lens of essays, organization, rubrics, and writing tests.

The most telling moment in class last Friday is when I asked my students when the last time they genuinely remembered writing something they enjoyed and learned from in an English language arts classroom? Most had to hearken back to elementary school; a few mentioned a moment in middle school. Elementary school is too long a time to have gone without an engaging writing experience in class. Don’t you agree?

I ended up using the moment to make my argument that writing is always twofold: it is communication, but it is also creative. As literacy teachers, we’ve all but about killed the creative component of writing. I hope to bring that back to my students this year–creativity in their writing. Sure, I want them to get better at writing ‘narrative,’ ‘persuasive,’ and ‘argumentative’ writing, but none of those most recognized genres of writing in school are excluded from creativity.

Don’t you agree?

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5 thoughts on “What is Writing?: A Revealing Conversation with 9th Graders

  1. I just might have to steal this. Even in the first semester of grad school, I have reconsidered-or perhaps-been re-inspired to teach my future students to enjoy writing. That the persuasive and argumentative essay can be both informative and creative. I think we as ELA teachers have the distinct honor and ability to create change in our education system, and hopefullly the world, through writing and language.

  2. Kyle, this is such a fascinating exercise. As a professional who relies on both creative writing to sell ideas and pure business writing to keep projects trucking along- I can sympathize. Sometimes it’s hard to make the connection between writing that is required and creativity (one seems to drain the fun from the other). I’ve recently gotten into reading the diaries of authors which (I find) provide a lot of inspiration– they take writing about everyday life and elevate it with a point of view and a unique voice. This has taught me to try and approach all writing as a potentially creative exercise. Communication is what we leave behind when we’re gone so we should strive to tell our stories as best we can. Everything we write should be treated as a piece (however small) of that story.

    • Thanks for sharing, Kim. I believe we all often forget that all writing is a form of creation and therefore creative. Changing my students perspective even a little to that point of view vivid have a profound impact. (I hope. )

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