After teaching writing for over 20 years, I’ve seen the benefits of having students write regularly, genuinely, and with ownership. Of course, they perform better academically, in every subject and on standardized tests, since consistent writing practice trains students to easily access their thoughts and skillfully express them. But by writing often and with purpose, students also grow as thinkers and as human beings. They discover not only their thoughts, but themselves. Here are six truths about teaching writing that I believe from my heart:
Strong writing is powerful, and can be learned.
Although modern-day writing continues to morph into many forms, the written word persists and is more powerful than ever. The strength of a clear, engaging, meaningful message cannot be underestimated. The good news is that with practice, effective writing can be learned. I try to dispel the myth that some people are born talented writers and everyone else is not. I strive to convince students that the stuff of their lives can be a basis for powerful writing, and that they can learn to write well if they commit to it.
Writing is an extension of thought, not just a record of it.
The act of writing always yields new insights. Often, learners don’t know what they think about a topic until they start writing about it. When students begin to experience this truth they gain confidence and excitement—writing becomes an adventure. The brain and the heart reveal themselves through writing, if it is practiced. The learner must show up for it, though: like a sport or hobby, one must show up for practice. One must be present.
Writing helps the writer be present and notice.
As with any task, it is possible to become absorbed when writing and experience full presence. One must turn inward; one must be silent. What a beautiful gift to give to students in a world full of loud, shallow distractions. And writing can give students even more than that—in order to write well in any genre, students must look deeply into their own daily lives and memories, at the colors, smells, and sunlight, at eyes, hands, and words. With practice, this persistent looking can expand into a way of being, a way of living more in the present at all times, a constant noticing. This is the true grace of the writing life. If we can give even a fraction of that to our students through the work of writing practice, we will have succeeded.
Writers become better by writing.
A coach would never teach an athlete a technique once or twice and expect her to be able to perform it perfectly from that point on. Free throws, flip turns, serves and spins are practiced thousands of times each year; so it is with writing. A goal of my new book 50 Writing Activities for Meeting Higher Standards is to give teachers plenty of writing assignments to choose from, to keep students constantly writing. Although rubrics are included with each activity, not everything has to be graded with a formal rubric. Plenty of writing in my class goes formally ungraded but verbally conferenced. It all helps.
Writing makes students read like writers.
When students practice real writing in several genres, they begin to read not as passive spectators but as knowledgeable apprentices. They begin to internalize the tenets of strong writing, and they can sense its presence. Instead of simply saying a text is “good” or “bad,” they can identify the skills employed or the ones lacking. They learn to read from the inside-out, like writers, simultaneously seeing the finished product and its working parts.
Writing as a practice develops one’s voice.
Regular writing about one’s life, observations, reflections, and opinions leads to a strong sense of voice. The writer comes to realize her unique style and outlook. Ideally, the writer also comes to believe that this individual perspective has value, that he has something to contribute to the world. Though each of us is only one voice, we are all important notes in the chorus of humanity. As educators, we must convince students of this by helping them write about their lives and opinions honestly and clearly, and by encouraging them to participate in the larger conversation of our shared existence.