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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.

Title

Let's Stop Killing Students' Spirits

A high school teacher shares some students' cries for help. Will we listen?

September 15, 2019
 
 

One of the chief motivations behind writing Why They Can’t Write was seeing students enter our first-year writing class feeling essentially dispirited about the prospect of reading and writing. 

I was not concerned about deficiencies in their skills. That we can work on. I was deeply concerned about their attitudes, however. There was no joy to be found in our particular writing Mudville.

In the book, I share the evidence of my own experience and student testimonies as to the source of their damaged spirits, essentially a system that privileges proficiency and standardization over exploration and growth.

Andy Schoenborn, an English teacher in Michigan[1]and past president of the Michigan Council of Teachers of English, starts his semester by asking his students to reflect on their lives as readers and writers through “surveys” that are a series of questions asking them examine their “experiences,” “challenges,” and “goals” when it comes to reading and writing. This is in the service of introducing students to some of the “habits of mind” (curiosity, openness, engagement, creativity, persistence, responsibility, flexibility, metacognition) of writers as articulated in the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Learning.[2]

What Andy Schoenborn’s students write in response to these prompts is both incredibly heartening and terribly distressing. 

On the heartening side, the examples Andy shared via Twitter show thoughtful people capable of strong writing. 

On the distressing side is the testimony regarding their lived experiences with reading and writing in school.

One student uses an extended cookie metaphor to contrast the writing she was tasked with in high school with what she’d experienced previously. High school has been a series of repetitive tasks, “I have (for the most part) only written one essay–introduction, three body paragraphs, and conclusion. I would clearly state my thesis, structure my evidence into three neat little pieces, and wrap everything up in five sentences rambling about how extremely significant my point was to the world.”

To this student, “My writing as well as my experiences with high school english in general ended up dry and flavorless, like a grocery store sugar cookie that sat on the shelf for too long. Sure, it’s beautifully shaped and frosted, but it usually doesn’t taste that great. It’s the type of cookie you only buy for its appearance.”

In contrast, in middle school, where the student was given more freedom to explore, “I enjoyed writing a lot more; rather than focusing on making a cookie look good, I could focus on making a cookie taste good. They were homemade, and cookies that are homemade tend to contain a part of the person who made them. Despite being rather misshapen and ugly compared to the store cookies, they at least tasted, if not good, how I wanted them to taste. I could write in a way that was meaningful to me, and as a result, I felt as though I improved and grew as a writer.”

For those who are concerned about how we measure whether or not students are learning, let me offer the above as an exhibit to what I believe to be the most effective method: ask the students themselves. Students can tell you if they are learning anything meaningful.

Another student writes about a “version of myself with brighter eyes and happier thoughts” who was an eager writer and voracious reader with a desire to “read every book in the school.”

Soon, though, the quest for “proficiency” enters and the student’s spirit is dimmed in the face of formulaic assignments. “ We’re in high school now. You’ll learn a lot, they tell us, like the right number of words in a sentence, the right number of sentences in a paragraph, and the right number of paragraphs in the six page paper you need to write to pass your class. It’s all very formulaic, they say. Just pour your words into the essay mold and you’ll have done it right. With enough practice, you’ll be able to do it in your sleep, and also on your SATs. I don’t particularly enjoy it, but I do what they say, turn it in, and get the grade. Rinse and repeat. I check the rubric again to make sure I’ve done it right. Somehow four more have appeared in my folder. It could be worse, I tell myself. They let us write for fun every once in a while, as long as it’s done correctly and formatted using MLA.”

The result is a student who was once an eager writer who has “learned to fear that red ink.” They’ve never stopped “loving words,” but those words now “bring more frustration than joy.”[3] 

Another student puts it rather plainly, “Reading has become something not only I, but a lot of my peers have learned to despise.”

Learned to despise.

Learned. This is not a story of inherent student resistance to reading and writing, but a system which has conditioned them to perform in unnatural and counterproductive ways, at least if our goal is to help them develop as writers and thinkers.

The additional distressing part of this is that here we’re looking at the survivors who have emerged from the gauntlet with spirits at least partly intact, and who now have a teacher invested in giving them the kind of freedom and agency that’s required for meaningful learning. 

The more common outcome is students who have essentially given up on school as a place for learning, even as they maintain acceptable, and even excellent grades. 

One of Andy Schoenborn’s students recognizes the harms of the system that mindlessly privileges “achievement” over learning. “Throughout the duration of high school, and especially my junior year, reading and writing became a job where I mass produced cheap, formulaic essays that maximized ‘profit’ in the form of high test scores and grades. I even began to read and think about texts not in the way that I wanted to read them but in the way I thought I needed to read them in order to get the correct answers on the SAT or AP Language exam. In fact, the only time I could focus on reading was when I was taking a test; if I could get away with not reading something, I wouldn’t read it. Overall, I never did more work than I needed to, and I never took risks with my writing, and I lost sight of what writing actually meant me. This led to picturesque cookies without flavor; cookies made to be bought and not eaten. Cookies with no soul or person attached to them.” 

These testimonies are proof of what I say in Why They Can’t Write about the “rigor” of current systems under which students learn to write, they are simultaneously too punishing and not nearly challenging enough. They do nothing to stoke the kinds of engagement that results in meaningful learning, while simultaneously killing students’ spirits with repetitive, mindless, and meaningless assessments. 

To me, this is nothing short of a cry for help. I’ve been hearing the same cries for years. 

When are we going to listen?

 

 

 

[1]Mr. Schoenborn is also co-author of Creating Confident Writers: For High School, College, and Life, which comes out next year. 

[2]This was put together by the Council of Writing Program Administrators, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the National Writing Project combining their forces, or as a I put it in Why They Can’t Write, it’s as though the Avengers, Justice League, and X-Men decided to get together to solve a problem on what makes for meaningful writing.

[3]I strongly encourage people click on my links and read the full texts of the students’ writing. I cannot do full justice, even with these extended quotes.

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