The Classroom

The Classroom is a podcast by a middle school writing teacher conferring with students about the books they read and issues in writing. The podcast strives to give students a voice about the impact of choice in the classroom and the reality of what works for them in the teaching of reading and writing.
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Nov 8, 2016

Two 8th grade students, Livia and Jenna, led our conferring session into ideas--which happens to not only be one of the Six Traits of Writing, but it is the first (and arguably most significant trait) among the Six Traits of Writing. As my students talk about their flow of ideas, Jenna brings up a very specific (and alarming) word: censor.

In the context of our conversation, Jenna shares that as one grows older a censor "gets built" into one's brain. You become "scared" to put down ideas. When one is younger, he doesn't care.

My gosh...8th grade students summoning up some of the seminal writing research of Don Graves, James Britton, Janet Emig, and others. What Jenna may or may not know (naturally, through her own visceral experiences as a writer) is that the censor she refers to does not grow naturally of its own accord. The censor is indeed placed inside the young writer's brain from a long, neurotic history of writing taught as correction.

The fear she references has long been noted (by Mina Shaghnessy and others) as a palpable fear of a trail of errors following the young writer around. Sadly, the research also shows that this freeze-up can often linger and follow us into and through our adult years.

For example, at a recent professional development workshop, I asked about thirty teachers in the room if any of them write. One raised her hand. At the conclusion of the session, I asked if any might start writing. None raised their hand. The reasons for not writing likely vary, but the fact remains, no matter how good the teacher may be or how well-intentioned, our generation of teachers is a walking manifestations of the flawed history of the teaching of writing in America: a heavy, heavy, heavy lead foot on the gas pedal of the correction of errors.

Helping adolescents develop their ideas is the heart of developing their thinking (aka writing) which is the foundation of developing as a writer. The trap we have to avoid is seeing narrow bands of thinking, such as the TDA or the DBQ, as writing when, in reality, in the testing situation, neither a TDA or a DBQ has much of anything to do with the authentic act of writing.

We know that writers think about ideas long before setting pencil to paper. Writers discuss, research, pull apart ideas. Writers revise ideas over extended periods of time--weeks, months, and years. No writer shares his brilliant treatise developed over minutes of thinking! Not only is the TDA and DBQ the most inauthentic act of writing we ever ask our kids to do, but also could become the only act of writing some ever ask their students to do.

Why isn't a TDA or a DBQ writing? Students don't own the idea. They never had any shot to think about it over time--like real writers. Students are not permitted to talk about the ideas--because talking would be cheating--even though as James Britton discovered, "Writing is born on a sea of talk. Our students only have a chance to revise without fresh eyes over a span of minutes--they are not afforded the opportunity to set their writing aside, walk away, think, come back to it real writers do. And, the first and only draft of their writing is judged. Where else in the real world of writing on this planet is a first, rough draft of an idea judged without any collaboration or time to research, think, share...? With the exception of setting handwriting to paper, scant few elements of a TDA or DBQ are indeed an act of real-world writing.

Frustrating, indeed.

This frustration is the crux of what Jenna and Livia point out to me in their own words. It is what I hear from students again and again and again:

I am a writer when it is personal and I can deeply relate.
When you are interested in a topic, you want to write about it more.
I only write to prompts I want to, otherwise it is a waste of time and I do not put my best effort in.

As you listen to the podcast, consider how the students in your classroom would feel about Jenna and Livia's experiences. How many would share their perspective? And if this perspective is shared, how might that knowledge impact the decisions we make as teachers?