I’ve always thought writing was cool.
It’s like talking… but better. I have a habit of thinking about everything all the time. One of my favorite things to do (call me lonely) is think. For me, just thinking isn’t enough; I have to connect and make sense of my thoughts which requires more and more thought and eventually starts to hurt my brain. Writing is my cure. I can transfer thoughts into written words, allowing me to organize and analyze what’s in my head. It turns an abstract thought into a visual, touchable, tastable (maybe?) sentence (or fragment if you’re an evil, grammar-hating human like me).
Writing is the physical manifestation of pure knowledge (insert mind-blown emoji).
Writing is the highest step on the communication staircase. The first step is an introverted thought—I like pineapples. Nobody but you and maybe your psychic cat knows about it. The second step is oral language. Once you have that thought, you can describe it in words by talking. You can tell everyone you see about how much you love pineapples. The ultimate step is writing. You can take your juicy, pineapple-oriented thought and write it down. Now you can tell the world about your strange, fruity obsession even long after you are dead and gone.
Since writing is just another step in the evolution of a thought, it is applicable in almost every area of life. You write job applications, Christmas cards, love letters to bae, memoirs about your time as a drawbridge operator in Sweden and angry emails to Kathy down the street whose son keeps getting into fights with yours and blames it on him even though your little Johnny is an angel and could never hurt a fly and—
And then there’s writing for school…
Why is it that writing is so fascinating and beautiful and fun until it comes to school?
In short, it’s because we hate what we write about.
In long, it’s because in high school there is no longer a clear divide between writing and literature. It used to be that school taught the three R’s: reading, (w)riting and (a)rithmetic. Since then it has turned into language arts and arithmetic (not fun to say at all). At some point someone somewhere decided that since reading and writing both start with the same letter (kinda not really) they should be taught together.
Worst. Mistake. Ever.
To be fair, the combination makes sense from a literary standpoint. Literature is very subjective and the best way to analyze subjective material is through an open-ended question with a written response.
Writing, however, should not be taught exclusively from a literary standpoint. In fact, almost all writing after graduation has absolutely nothing to do with literature. Writing and literature are not two sides of the same coin. Writing is an all-encompassing method of organization and communication. Literary works, on the other hand, although manifested through writing, often have more to do with rhetoric than writing as an art form.
Therefore, if you’re trying to teach writing in high school, this combination of writing and literature classes completely and utterly sucks. Language arts teachers now have to somehow teach both writing and literature—two of the deepest and broadest subjects—in a single class period. Since a mere 50 minutes five days a week is not enough to do both literature and writing, teachers are forced to resort to combining the two, giving birth to a new monster: the literary analysis essay.
Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with literary analysis and nothing wrong with essays. Actually, there’s also nothing wrong with literary analysis essays—if you’re in a literature class. The problem develops when literary analysis is the only form of writing to which students are exposed.
Part of the problem is that literary analysis is only one style of writing. As with any skill, one should be exposed to all its forms and styles in order to gain a broader view of the subject. When a student is only exposed to literary analysis, he is forever ignorant of the diverse world of writing and often finds himself clueless when he tries to write anything else.
The heart of the problem, however, is that students just don’t care about the essays they write. It’s no secret that most high school students don’t have an affinity for classic literature (most of the works taught in public schools are classic). If students dislike literature, then naturally they will dislike writing about it. Students will then start to generalize and think that all writing is about literature and therefore all writing is boring.
If students dislike what they write about, they will be less motivated to improve their writing skills.
So kids don’t like what they’re writing about. How do we fix it?
Have them write about something they care about or something that interests them (I’m a genius).
What high school needs is a writing class separate from literature. It would be a class solely devoted to writing development. Units would be about different styles of writing instead of different genres of literature that students analyze all in the same way. In this way, student writing skills would improve drastically and literature teachers could focus exclusively on literature.
The effects of our ineffective high school writing system can be seen when students go to college and must be re-taught basic writing skills because all they can do is write in a literary context.
When the word “essay” is uttered in a high school it is immediately and unfailingly followed by a chorus of moans and groans. That just shouldn’t be. As my mother has said 3,005 times, “‘essay’ means ‘to wander.’” I ignored her the first few hundred times (because what kind of teenage boy would I be if I didn’t?) but eventually, I understood. It doesn’t mean wandering about aimlessly because you’re a sad, lonely, lost person; it’s more like wandering through the woods on a crisp autumn morning with the sunlight filtering through the trees and a brook trickling beside you and you have no worries and no specified place you have to be. Except it’s all in your head. And the sun is your consciousness. And the trees are thoughts. And the brook is your experience from which all the thought-plants and thought-animals drink and obtain sustenance. An essay is when you wander through these thought-woods and watch the thought-birds and maybe find a new little thought-bunny hiding under a thought-log that you never knew you thought before.
Essays are about exploring yourself and sharing it with the world; that’s something that should get kids excited, not make them groan and complain.
photo credits to parkeastgroupinc.com