Students Don’t Write for Pleasure
December 28, 2018 § 29 Comments
By Laura Capel
I walk through the door with my new dress, purple with black stripes. I am determined to conquer this teaching thing. I will validate my students’ writing and give them a confidence I never had. I think, “I’ll show those teachers who always focused on essays and grammar that English class doesn’t have to be all about academic writing, just wait.”
Three weeks in, reality hits. Creativity has little place in a high school English classroom. I find myself bogged down by fancy terminology, looming deadlines, my student’s lack of grammatical knowledge, and the constant need to convince everyone, that writing matters. Within the curriculum I teach, there are five essays students have to learn, six books to read, one speech to give, and various vocabulary and grammar skills to master. In the midst of all this required reading and writing, it is no wonder most of my students walk through the door on the first day and openly admit they hate English class. It’s not shocking to hear “Ugh, English. I hate English” or “I used to love reading and writing in Elementary school, now it just sucks.” Why wouldn’t they hate English class? With all of these required skills they must learn, students have no time to write or think creatively. They rarely get the opportunity to explore their own narrative voice when they are so busy developing their academic one.
They write to inform. They write to persuade. They write to show they were listening. Students don’t write for pleasure. We’ve gone away from poetry and storytelling to focus on persuasive writing and research units. While academic writing surely has a place in the world, and students should learn to follow the rules of academic writing, I find myself wondering- where has the creativity gone? When will students get to be real writers and not regurgitators of essay structures? When will students craft a piece of writing because they want to, in a voice or format they want to write in?
In the last year, I have set out on a mission to change the drab task of academic writing into writing my students feel passionate about and topics they identify with. As the mantra goes – all great writing starts with great reading. Now, it’s not to say that texts like Romeo and Juliet aren’t important or that The Odyssey doesn’t have value, it’s that my students need guidance to show them that these words matter, and their voice matters too.
In the midst of graduate school, teaching summer school, and tutoring I followed my intuition and changed what I was doing in the classroom. I knew my students needed it and more importantly I, as a teacher, needed for them to find a love (or at least an acceptance) of words and writing.
It started with The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and discovering the short, descriptive goldmines known as vignettes. While I knew that most of my freshmen wouldn’t be producing creative nonfiction masterpieces their first time out of the gate, I knew that short vignettes were something they could handle. I’ve moved away from the required academic narrative to allowing students to tell me snippets of their lives, stories they think are necessary to share. I’ve emphasized their narrative voice and the impact of every story, including their own.
I’ve asked students to write about themselves and to write about literature in ways I hadn’t done before. I’ve learned more about my students’ personal lives, their hopes, dreams, and fears than I ever could have from an academic piece of writing. I’ve learned that at 14 years old my students are far more aware of their realities than I originally thought they ever could be. One student notes that white people always doublecheck their car locks as he walks by them, another questions why generations of his family have lived in poverty and if he will too, another describes the shame she feels every time she looks in the mirror, another reflects back on why her mother left her and what she could have done to keep her here, another wonders why people always say “you’re pretty, for a black girl” and not just “you’re pretty.” They are incredibly astute to the worlds they live in outside of school, they bring up discussions and perspectives I would have never thought they might be ready for.
Creativity has brought life back into my classroom. It has given students the power to look deeply at the worlds they live in and to question everything.
While I am not certain I have swayed my students to believe English is the coolest subject they will ever take in high school (even though it definitely is), I do know by taking a step back from prescriptive academic writing, and switching to a more creative approach, I have developed stronger relationships with my students, I have increased their confidence as writers, and I have opened to the door to having real discussions about events happening around us. By infusing more creative writing genres and topics into the curriculum, I have found students to be more open to reading the works of traditionally “academic” writers like William Shakespeare and Homer because they have witnessed how every voice has value, and that every piece of writing has something to offer.
Laura Capel is a Council Bluffs native and a third-year High School English teacher in Bellevue, Nebraska. She is currently a graduate student at the University of Nebraska at Omaha seeking a Masters in English. When she is not distracted by her two cats, she enjoys writing creative nonfiction and academic research.