In an earlier post, I discussed why most students tend to not like writing. In short, it is generally because writing is so complex that it maxes out our attention and working memory. Our brains are highly suspicious of anything that hard, and so while writing (or doing any other intense mental activity for that matter) they frequently try to convince us that this is not fun or worth it. Veteran writers have the ability to push past the brain’s protests, but novices often struggle to move past the difficulty and discomfort, and thus that is what writing becomes for them.
The problem with this is that if students view writing as unpleasant, too much work, or not worth the energy, the odds are that they will not be willing to put in the effort to make significant gains. That is why my central objective the first week of class, long before I introduce the writing process or semicolons, is to try to get every student on the path to liking or at the very least not actively disliking writing. I have found that nearly any student can learn to love writing, and once they do the pace at which they grow increases exponentially.
So how does one do that? How does one teach someone to like and value something that they don’t? For years I struggled with shifting student opinions on writing; generally I’d tell students that writing matters and is fun if you give it a chance, they’d nod and politely agree with me, and afterward their opinion and behavior wouldn’t shift at all.
The turning point for me came when I started to incorporate lessons from the other hat that I wear at school, track coach, in my writing classroom. When it comes to track, although I have been a runner for several decades, I’ve always been a bit confused about why people do it. Running hurts, takes tremendous effort and time, and is so far from “fun” that it is used as a form of punishment in other sports. And yet millions of runners like me across this country voluntarily lace up their shoes every day, and when I talk to fellow runners about why they do it, I generally hear one of these four answers:
- It is good for me.
- It makes you feel good afterwards.
- I like the social connections I build doing it.
- I like the challenge/competition.
And it turns out that in those answers lie potential solutions for how to get a student to like writing. Like running, writing hurts in its own way, takes great time and effort, and can often feel more like punishment than a privilege. But also like running, it feels good in an somewhat unusual way, is unequivocally good for you, is intensely social despite being a seemingly solitary activity, and holds limitless challenges. And I’ve found that nearly every student can be enticed by one or more of those reasons to write. Here are my lessons, organized by reasons, that I use to get students to stop seeing writing as a difficult, negative, I’m-doing-this-because-I-don’t-want-to-fail experience and learn that while hard, it can also be strangely fun, highly social, invigorating, and endlessly rewarding.
It Is Good For You
I begin the year with a series of lessons derived from the one and only Kelly Gallagher‘s “Why Read?” activity. In this activity, he hits students with a barrage of thoughtful, well-supported reasons for why they should read (if you haven’t seen his reasons, it is well worth clicking on the link. I use many of them in my classes and students regularly single them out as what inspired them to read more). The genius of Gallagher’s activity is that so often teachers will answer the question, “Why are we doing this?” with something in the neighborhood of “Because I said so.” While teachers can’t and shouldn’t pause to give reasons for everything, when Gallagher preemptively responds to it, he sends a powerful message to students that he is so confident that reading will better their lives that he is willing to share the reasons with them, even if that leaves him open to criticism. Further, Gallagher likely understands that when students have a purpose for doing something, their motivation and comfort tend to increase, and those are two things that students will likely need to get through tough literature.
My “Why Write” is similar in that I too give the students a wide range of thoughtful reasons (see below), but before I do, I take it one step further and ask my students directly on the very first day of class why they think that it matters to write so much that it became one of the core “Three ‘R’s” at the heart of our educational system? They brainstorm answers for this in groups, and we then share, discuss, and document their answers as a class. I find that doing this before giving my reasons creates more understanding that writing really does matter because they have already begun to make a personal connections to the answers. It also makes it feel less like they are being lectured, even if I do give a series of mini-lectures on why writing matters later, because both sides get a say.
It Makes You Feel Good Afterwards/I Like the Social Connections
My first essay assignment is not on a book, story, or poem. It is instead an essay where the students take anything that they want to see changed in the world and write a letter to someone who can do something about it. I made this change a few years ago because I wanted students to focus more on the art of writing an argument before they also had to contend with deeply analyzing a book/story/poem. And while it did accomplish that, which did help to more effectively scaffold the students up to writing essays on literature, the assignment also had an unexpectedly and arguably more important outcome. It also a demonstrated how writing can give them a voice, connect them to the larger world, and change the world in a way that no other assignment had ever done. All of a sudden, instead of arguing about something they didn’t care about, they got to pour out their passion concerning reproductive rights, climate change, school start times, or why their parents should get them backyard chickens (that essay worked in getting the student a chicken), and the buy-in that this created about actually learning the argumentative form both in this assignment and afterwards was so remarkable that I have never begun with another paper.
Here is the assignment:
I Like the Challenge/Competition
In my previous school there was an Advanced Composition teacher widely viewed by staff and students as the queen of writing instruction. After hearing so much about her, I grew curious about how she built this reputation, and so I used to stop by regularly during my prep period just to watch. What I quickly learned is that what differentiated it from other classes was the unique blend of rigor and light-hearted competition at the center of her instruction. Students in her class knew that they could expect two things each day: that you would learn something worthwhile and then compete in some sort of battle royal with that information.
While her competition-based style might not work for everyone, and certainly doesn’t fully work for me, I still use a handful of her “battle royal” lessons early in the year because I find the light-hearted and yet rigorous competitions really help to soften students who have antagonism towards writing and writing classrooms because it shows them how something can be both difficult and fun. For example, when we talk about the importance of sentence combining (something I will discuss in greater detail later), I have them compete in the following activity. It is simple yet surprisingly hard, and the students not only throw themselves into it every time, most leave class laughing about it and almost none forget about sentence combining from that point onwards.
These activities are three of thousands that could accomplish the same goals, as there is certainly no single path to getting students to like or even love writing. Different approaches will appeal to different students, but we as humans are inherently drawn to challenges, social interactions, and things that give us an advantage. Use these instinctual desires to draw students to writing and the odds are that sooner than later they will stop worrying and learn to love putting words on a page!
Yours in Teaching,