When I started teaching writing in high school, my challenge was to overcome students’ tendencies–whether innate or programmed–to strive merely to meet the expectations of their teachers. For students, writing was an exercise in figuring out “what the teacher wants.”
I wanted my students to get in touch with themselves, to write for themselves. I believe that a teenager who is aware of his/her inner voice, gains self-respect, and that an awareness of his/her own dignity leads a student to respect others. My ultimate goal, you might have perceived, is world peace.
But back to the reality of the English classroom–how to help students contact their inner voices and learn to feel worthy of, have confidence in, and enjoy expressing themselves.
My first question to a writing class is, “Who do you spend the most time with?” After some discussion about friends, family, and pets, the light dawns, and one student says, “Myself.” We move to a discussion of how uncomfortable middle school was (a universal memory) because we were not satisfied with ourselves and felt there were expectations we had to meet. We share anecdotes. Sharing common experiences makes a group feel psychologically safe.
I even tell the class about the time in grade nine when I was desolate because I could not wrestle my hair into the perfect flip (the 60s) that popular Jane wore. I then tell my students about the liberation I felt in realizing that I had my hair and not Jane’s hair, and that since I was the person I spent the most time with, I was the person I should make happy. My goal is to help my students feel less threatened about the concept of expressing their own ideas in their own voices.
I then have the students do “Two Minute Writes” which I learned from a facilitator at a literacy workshop. I ask my students to jot down 5 to 10 positive memories and 5 to 10 negative memories. I tell the students to select one memory to narrate in writing, and that I will stop them in two minutes. When the two minutes are up, the kids groan. They groan! I snuck in a journaling assignment and they beg to have more time to write
Another exercise we do in class is “Writing Sparks.” Students take turns introducing writing ideas to the class, and then we all (teacher, too) write for 10 minutes. A student tells about “what got me thinking” and then presents a writing topic to the class.
I usually model the exercise with a summary of the ubiquitousness of cup holders, and then I ask “Does our need for cup holders say something about our culture?”
One girl told about noticing the calloused hands of a friend on the rowing team, and the situation prompted her to ask her classmates, “What do your hands say about you?”
During the Bosnian conflict, one boy ruminated about the rules governing prisoner of war exchanges. He asked us to write about the irony of enemies’ abiding by rules during war time.
After writing for 10 minutes, students put their writing in their writing folders. I never look at them. The students can use the sparks as fodder for future writing assignments or for their own purposes.
In the curriculum, we have only ten weeks’ time for writing sparks. Throughout the year students ask me repeatedly to reinstate the exercise, and in their year-end evaluations students invariably cite the sparks as one of their favorite activities.
I will not enumerate other writing opportunities we have in English classrooms. I hope you can see the power of the two “journaling” exercises I described. A student is enjoying writing for which he/she is the sole audience! What a wonderful validation of self worth.
Linda Janoff taught11th grade AP English Language and Composition classes and chaired the English department at Pine View School for the Gifted in Sarasota, Florida