Students Don’t Write for Pleasure

December 28, 2018 § 29 Comments

capel photoBy 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.


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§ 29 Responses to Students Don’t Write for Pleasure

  • Good job, Laura! I taught high school Junior English for 25 years. I began reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Wife’s Story” and how that story is about betrayal. Our first writing assignment was a fable and our second was CNF about their “idyllic place.” And I too used The House on Mango Street to trigger personal stories. Human beings tells stories. We tell stories to explain a car accident and why we want a new sofa and how we got home so late. Stories matter regardless of the narrow vision of recent educational reform.

  • colbyjack5000 says:

    I wish you had been my high school English teacher, and maybe I now know why mine was so unhappy. I might have read more and written at all with you in front of the room. Great piece and I look forward to more from you. ❤

    • lauraacapel says:

      Thank you Colby! It has taken some trial and error to learn as a teacher, but I am so thankful that there are communities out there to help encourage me as I try to do what’s best for my students.

  • Nancy Julien Kopp says:

    An excellent post. Academic writing is boring to young students. The creative juices flow more easily with a bit of guidance from teachers like you.

    • lauraacapel says:

      Thank you! I have found that by hooking my students in with creative writing they are more engaged in academic writing because they see how it helps them get better. By teaching the “rules”, I can also teach them how to break them!

  • Have you read TheySay/I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing? I think you and your students would like it.

  • This is wonderful! I hope you can keep up the great work in the classroom, and I will remember this when my kids reach high school-age. Right now, in 3rd grade, they get a lot of freedom–to write what they like, and they even enjoy poetry. Which I can’t say I did until college! This is also smart for us adult readers/writers to remember. We can get stuck in our classic ruts and forget what’s exciting about creativity is new forms, new voices, and new ways of seeing and understanding the world. Thank you!

    • lauraacapel says:

      Thank you for reading, I have found that most of my students at some point in their past enjoyed reading and writing. It’s been my challenge to myself to find ways to get them back to that enjoyment and build lifelong readers and writers.

  • Virginia Boudreau says:

    Bravo, Laura!!! You’ve beautifully expressed what so many teachers feel. It’s almost impossible to instill passion for writing with the current system. Your vision is exposing them to the magic of self reflection and creative expression; they’ll forever thank you for this gift.

    • lauraacapel says:

      Thank you very much! It has been amazing to see the shift in my students’ attitudes toward writing. Many of them are writing outside of class and share it with me simply because they want to seek readers. I have started encouraging them to seek more global readership too. I’m hoping they will see that reading and writing doesn’t have to another chore, that it can be something they enjoy!

  • I really enjoyed your essay. It brought back many fine memories of teaching 7th and 12th English at an all girls school, and the many creative and fun ways I engineered to circumvent and enhance the curriculum guidelines. My main goal quickly became: Do no harm – do NOT make them hate writing and reading. Instead, instill wonder and confidence…

    • lauraacapel says:

      YES! That is exactly what I try to live by when making choices that will affect my students. It is so important to me that they find joy in reading and writing that most of them had as young students.

  • Plenty of adults could benefit from this approach too! Once again I bless my high school English teachers (this was in the late 1960s) who made both the reading and the writing challenging, inspiring, and even fun. Come to think of it, I got the basics — grammar, spelling, punctuation — in late elementary school and junior high. I don’t recall a heavy emphasis on these in high school except as they related to whatever we were working on. As an adult I’ve made most of my living as an editor, but interestingly enough, until I got my first editorial job in my late 20s I didn’t realize that writing and editing were considered separate skills.

    • lauraacapel says:

      That is something that I sometimes forget to consider when my students are writing… sometimes I forget that they aren’t trained in the art of editing and that is a whole separate set of skills. I’ve been working on getting students to see editing as a skill they can improve.


  • 1WriteWay says:

    Kudos to you, Laura, for putting your students’ needs first. I taught one semester of First-Year Composition when I was a grad student. We had to teach the standard 5-paragraph essay, grammar and sentence structure, persuasive argumentation. I sucked at it and my students no doubt suffered for it. It was all work and no fun. Sadly some of it was necessary since too many of my college students were very poor writers. I wonder if they had had teachers like you, they would have been better writers by the time of college, better because they would have had the opportunities to express themselves and learn from that rather than the other way around.

    • lauraacapel says:

      Thank you so much! I can certainly be tough to figure out how to balance the standard skills and rules students should know and follow, while simultaneously encouraging them to be creative and enjoy what they’re doing. I’ve found that students learn the “rules” better if I tell them that we are learning them so that we can purposefully break them. All teenagers love the idea of breaking rules, but they have to understand the rules before they can break them!

  • Good Job, Laura. I sincerely believe that the sciences were the best classes I had in high school (about a thousand years ago 🙂 but I had a “wannabe” actor that led us into Mr. Shakespeare and other things, so, I became an engineer, skilled at math, but with a love of language and reading. Keep up the good work and don’t be afraid to let your students fill their sails and fly.

  • Karen says:

    And tell me how you didn’t end up teaching in CB. This is just great! It is so difficult for students to recognize the value of Language Arts/English. Your creativity is much needed in high school education today. Good luck in the classroom and your ongoing education.


  • This is everything. I had the same struggle teaching a 100-level college writing class to non-traditional students who needed to first learn that their voices matter before learning to write. Thank you for teaching that as part of your curriculum!

  • […] Source: Students Don’t Write for Pleasure | BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog […]

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