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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Allowing Students to Experience the Fun of Writing

I think I denied students access to the best parts about writing for too long.

May 24, 2018

I’ve long been jealous of science teachers because they have liquid nitrogen.

I remember the day in eighth grade science class when my teacher brought in the semi-sinister looking metal canister, unsealed the top and the vapor pooled around the desk, like something out of a spooky movie. Donning elbow length gloves and wielding a long set of tongs, he took a single rose, dipped it into the canister for a couple beats and shattered it against desk.


The finale was a racquetball, which he hurled against the wall on my side of the room. One of the shards landed near my feet and by the time I picked it up, it had returned to its rubbery consistency.


If nothing else, the liquid nitrogen hijinks are fun, but in addition to being fun they invited questioning and discovery. Why does that happen? What does it mean? It is an introduction to a mystery that is knowable, should one care to seek that knowledge.

Mister Wizard is a magician who’s more than willing to explain the tricks.

One of my core beliefs about teaching writing is we have to do better when it comes to providing access to the parts of writing that are actually fun. So much of what I’ve asked students over the years feels like I’ve been requiring them to demonstrate an eligibility for entry into the good stuff, a “you must be this proficient to ride” sign guarding the turnstile.

I tell them we’re preparing for the “real” stuff, but the real stuff never seems to arrive. You have to know this, we pledge. It’s really important, for the future.

Of course, to orient towards the fun stuff, I have to figure out what that is. Even for many writers, writing itself is famously not fun. I don’t like to write; I like having written.

This suggests meaningful writing is meant to be a struggle, that the moment to moment experience of it may be difficult and frustrating, but there’s something about the struggle that made it worth doing.

Lately I’ve been wondering if my quest for students to prove proficiency before getting to the good stuff actually made it less likely for them to ever achieve proficiency because I was denying them access to the kinds of writing challenges that are actually fun in the way writing can be fun.

I’m thinking of he blog post I published immediately prior to this one reflecting on and responding to a proposal to change college majors as we know them. As I was in the midst of working on it, I went to Twitter to lament my difficulties in “landing” the piece. I had too many things to say and couldn’t manage to wrangle them into a cohesive whole. I left another 1500 words on the cutting room floor, even as the final version was still too long for my taste. Still, for all the struggles, it was a kind of fun to be able to wrestle with the thing as I tried to figure out what I wanted to say and the best way to say it. After starting drafting the post Tuesday, I woke up Wednesday morning with it on my mind.

What was so involving about it? I can identify a few elements:

1. I was writing on a subject on which I had some knowledge.

2. I had been provoked by someone else’s idea, and had an idea (multiple ideas, actually) of my own triggered in response.

3. I had an outlet/audience for my expression. Knowing I have this space to fill not only out of professional obligation, but as an avenue to putting my ideas into the world is significantly motivating. I will be read. People may respond. The stakes are real; I better be careful.

4. The best approach for conveying my idea(s) was not obvious and would require me to both refine the ideas themselves as well as the method of presentation.[1]

In essence, I had a problem to solve of my own design without an easy solution, indeed, with many possible solutions, some of which are clearly better than the others. In the end, I think I got maybe 85% of the way towards my goal of finding the best possible expression of my ideas. In the writing game, that’s pretty good.

Upon reflection, I spent many years teaching writing without allowing students access to any of the four dimensions. I think I was worried about overwhelming them, giving them more than they could bite off and chew. After all, students often don’t know all that much yet, and if I let them write on subjects on which they are knowledgeable, those subjects may not be worthy of academic study.

If I don’t give them some structural templates to work from, I’m likely to get work that rambles senselessly.

But by doing this, I was keeping students from having the writing equivalent of that a-ha, liquid nitrogen moment.

Writing is thinking, a deeply internal process of discovery unique to the individual. The goal is to make myself smarter than I was prior to sitting down to write. When it happens – and I think these moments are identifiable – it is the writing equivalent of smashing the frozen rose, magic made manifest.

But I cannot demonstrate this to students. They must experience it for themselves, but I believe once they experience it, their faith in writing being something worthwhile, and their belief in their abilities to contribute to a discourse are born.

To me, this, not the quest to demonstrate proficiency is the battle.

Will this cause difficulties as I ask them to solve writing-related problems that may simply be too big for them to bite off and chew?


But the battle itself will be glorious, and since it’s only school, and I’m in charge of what counts, I can make sure they survive, eager to fight again.


[1] In the end, I wrote five different ledes to the piece, any one of which would have worked, but choosing a different lede would have then altered the structure and presentation of everything after.


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