Using Writing as a Tool to Figure out a Difficult World

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Last weekend I opened my computer in the hopes of getting some grading done, and then I saw the following headline in The New York Times: “Trump Suggests Giving Bonuses to Trained and Armed Teachers.” At the sight of this, I closed my computer and opened my journal.

I’m still not sure exactly what it was about that specific headline that inspired a sudden need to write. The last few weeks have seen a flurry of headlines involving guns, schools, and politics coming before the well-being of students and teachers, but for some reason the article stirred up something inside me that I needed to sort out before moving on with my day.

Now, I want to make it clear that I don’t bring this up in an effort to make a political point. There is already an incredible array of statements on shootings and schools, ranging from this powerful op-ed in Education Week to Kelly Gallagher’s unit on mass shootings. And while I did write a piece on school shootings, I did it solely for me as an effort to understand and unpack my own feelings.

The reason I bring this up is that I think it is important to remember that we write for a lot of reasons. While many of those reasons involve audiences, many do not. People have been filling mole skins with musings and diaries with their darkest worries since writing began, and most who do this don’t do it in an effort to build an audience, shift someone’s thinking, or get a good grade. Instead I would argue the majority of those who scrawl in journals late at night do it because writing is powerful personal medicine. It can clarify thinking, unlock thoughts, forge connections, and help us to understand a world that is not always nice and hardly ever clear. 

This idea–that some writing is not for any audience but you–is one that I think should really get more attention from educators. I’ve written before about how ungraded freewrites can help students to learn content faster and how writing that won’t be seen by the teacher is the best place for many students to experiment because it comes without the fear of a grade lurking around the edges. But alongside these things, I think it is also important for us to use personal writing in our classes in the way that many often use it at home: as a tool to help grapple with a difficult world.

The main way I like do this in my classes is in conjunction with literature. I love to pair personal writing with literature because stories can act as relatively safe laboratories to explore the human condition through inhabiting others, observing situations, and dissecting outcomes. It feels like a natural next step after doing that to use writing to reflect on how the wisdom of others can help us to better navigate our own lives.

To establish this connection between reading and personal writing, I start my literature classes with two simple questions:

  1. Why is literature one of the central components of their educational curriculum?
  2. Why is it so important to learn to write?

I do this in part because I think it is important that students understand how what we do in class will improve their lives. Dave Stuart Jr. has a wonderful post here on the value of showing students the reasons for any given thing done in class. But I also do it to prove a point. Every time I ask this question, the students quickly make their way to the idea that beyond growing as readers, writers, and thinkers, literature also helps us to grow as people, but I have never had a student talk about how writing can help us to grow as people. They instead overlook its internal value and focus solely on its role in external communication.

This regular omission offers a perfect opportunity to introduce a theme that I repeat early and often–writing is a powerful tool to help make sense of our lives, which are often anything but sensical. This then sets the stage for us writing regularly to explore how the ideas and stories of the class can inform our own journeys. Doing this comes with a whole host of advantages, including:

  • Through reflection many students walk away with powerful lessons that help them in their own lives.
  • When students constantly connect literature to their own lives, it can help them to understand the value of stories.
  • By processing literature through a personal lens, students develop closer connections to characters because they have a better understanding of them.
  • Students comprehend and remember literature better when they connect the themes and events to their own lives.
  • By directly connecting literature to students’ lives over and over, we can form unconscious pathways and habits that will help students to better draw lessons from literature for the rest of their lives.

In terms of what this looks like in practice, here are a few concrete examples of how I pair literature and personal writing. The first is from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which I just finished in my African American Literature class:

The main theme of the unit is that the book is a close examination of how people overcome or are overcome by obstacles in their lives. To set this up, I ask students to reflect on obstacles in their own lives and then we regularly dissect how the characters in the book handle the obstacles in front of them and then apply those lessons to the obstacles we established in the beginning. Here is the slide that sets that up:

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The second example is from The Catcher in the Rye. I have found this to be one of the most important books to pair with regular personal student writing. Before I had my students reflect on how their lives intersect with the book, I found students complained more often about Holden than any other narrator, as he was just so negative and grating. Now my students start class every day during the Catcher unit with a reflection on a personal struggle that mirrors Holden. My hope in this is that they will get into mind-frame where they can better relate to Holden, and the result is that The Catcher in the Rye tends to be my students’ favorite unit of the entire year. Here is the first of the ten “short writes” I use as we read. It begins with a poem that illustrates disillusionment and then quickly asks students to think about how disillusionment plays into their worlds.

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In the end, the concept behind this pairing of literature and personal writing is to mimic the way that people actually use writing in the real world. During our lives we tend to turn to writing the most in moments of strong emotions or uncertainty. Our diaries often lie fallow until someone breaks up with us, visioning often stays in our head until our lives or schools are in crisis, and thoughts often go unrecorded until something (see me at the start) stirs our souls to action. The same is true with students, but when we use literature as a provocateur of the big questions or to inspire strong feelings, we can better engage students and get them walking away feeling like they have learned something that will help them both in and out of the classroom!

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