MHS is well-known for having a progressive reading program that is a mainstay in every English class from freshman English all the way to AP Literature. The curriculum is characterized by flexibility and student choice, giving students the power to take control of their reading. After four years of taking core English classes at MHS, it is clear to me that students have reacted positively to this concept, and it has fostered a love for reading in many.
Since the shift toward this new concept, English Teacher Ernie Billittier said he has noticed increased student ownership regarding their reading and an increase in the amount students are reading as a whole.
With that said, though, writing is the other half of the English curriculum, and it’s this other half where many students still struggle to find the same fulfillment they have found in reading.
Therefore, by bringing in elements from MHS’s student-driven reading program to the way writing is taught and practiced, there is great potential for improvement in the way students view writing– not just as a practice done to please a teacher, but as an avenue to be creative, deepen knowledge and communicate topics about which students are passionate.
“I talk to my students all the time about how reading is amazing, but it’s a selfish act,” English Teacher Beth Willis said. “You’re just taking and taking and taking– writing is the giving back of your ideas. Now that you’ve experienced things and you’ve thought about things, writing really is about giving back.”
The following suggestions of focus for improvement, then, are based on the successes of the MHS reading program and observations made by MHS English teachers. These objectives are all meant to push toward the same goal: making writing a more fulfilling experience for students.
FOSTERING STUDENT CHOICE
The cornerstone of reading at MHS is the ability for students to choose what they read. It’s a simple concept, but one that has been effective in engaging students, as it allows them to delve deeper into topics and genres in which they are personally interested– not just the books a teacher may require. This can be implemented into writing in a similar way, bringing in more opportunities for students to choose what they want to write.
“If it’s student-driven, if you had the freedom to write about [something you’re interested in], then you would feel more ownership over the topic, and then your research would be genuine, and you take a little bit more pride in the final product,” Billittier said.
Allowing for choice in what students write may also lead to a better final product, as passion for a subject can inspire greater effort and engagement with the assignment itself, implementing what is taught in class in a more meaningful way. For this reason, there should be a balance between teachers selecting topics to help broaden the knowledge of students and giving students the freedom to write about something in which they are passionate.
“It’s hard to write when you don’t care about the topic, and if you don’t care, it comes across in your writing to your reader that you don’t care one way or the other about [the topic],” Willis said. “The more choice a student has, the better the product is going to be because they care.”
TAKING THE TIME
With only 50 minutes a day set aside for any given English class, there is a huge time restraint that needs to be worked around when it comes time to write. This leads to high stress for students, and work that is rushed.
The impact of short turnaround time for writing can be seen in timed writings built to prepare students for AP tests. English Teacher Angie McLaughlin said there is little time to focus on style in timed writings and that this format lends itself more to a formulaic approach to writing. For these reasons, how students are taught to write under timed conditions isn’t “necessarily how we write in real life,” she said.
Though timed writings are necessary to ensure student preparedness for the test, one can see this rushed mindset come through in regular assignments as well.There may not be a timer hanging on the wall when working on other assignments, but by giving little time to plan and revise writing, a similar response is elicited.
“I would like students to realize that writing is not like going through the drive-thru at a fast-food restaurant– that good writing truly does take time and effort, and that’s a really hard thing to do when students today are so pressed for time,” Willis said.
There is not much one can change with regards to the time spent within a particular day or week on writing, but one can increase the amount of time spent on individual assignments to allow for students to go through the full writing process– analysis of published works, brainstorming, drafting, revising and conferencing with the teacher.
There would have to be fewer assignments given in order to fit more long-term assignments into the curriculum; however, there is great potential for drastic improvement in effort and engagement with a fully fleshed out project when compared to an abbreviated lesson.
Billittier said, “What a luxury it would be, and what a sign of respect it would be for our students and young learners to be given time to really craft a piece of writing.”
FINDING GREATER PURPOSE
MHS has specialty writing programs that allow students to further develop their writing skills and push them out to a larger audience. Some examples include the Voices Literary magazine, Yearbook and Newspaper, as well as creative writing classes. These programs are able to provide further writing purposes for students beyond just a teacher grading the work. They are platforms for students to showcase their work and publish their thoughts and ideas.
The writing done in these realms brings about another level of engagement, as students hope to have their work received well by not just one person, but a wider audience of readers.
McLaughlin has brought the ability to publish works to her core English classes in order to provide her students with an “authentic audience,” as she calls it. This includes online publication to websites such as Teenink.com, submissions to Voices Literary Magazine and essay contests. This plays into the importance she places on crafting a piece to convey a message to a unique audience, which may not always be academic.
It would be beneficial for teachers to encourage students in all English classes to consider publishing their work, as well as teach how to write for varied rhetorical situations and contexts. Above all, it can help students find their voice in writing– allowing them to express themselves in a more authentic way.
Emphasis on genres of writing that aren’t simply academic can also be a good way to change the fixed mindset that many students have– that writing is only done to turn in for a grade. So, while analysis and the five-paragraph essay are important in succeeding in the educational system, there needs to be time for other types of writing, such as poetry, story-telling and creative writing in the mainstream English classes. Students can then start to explore their own interests, ideas and opinions through the medium of writing in a fresh, inspiring way.
Billittier, then, promotes “empowering students [by showing them] that their voice matters, that their perspective on our shared human experiences is worth exploring and that [they] have a multitude of genres and ways of approaching that and attacking that.”
SPACE TO TAKE RISKS
A big hindering factor when it comes to promoting authenticity is grading– whether it be standards-based or traditional. Students have a tendency to conform their writing to exactly what the teacher wants in order to earn an A. In doing this, creativity goes by the wayside, and they tend to stick to the safe side when writing.
Students prefer to stick to the norm and don’t look to innovate with their writing out of fear that whatever they try might not be received well, and they’d be left with a bad grade.
“A lot of students don’t want to take risks for that very reason even though the outcome could be so much better– it’s scary to take risks,” Willis said.
Giving students the opportunity to take a risk in their writing when it comes to formatting or technique is key. Encouraging them to step outside their comfort zone and giving them the time to conference and discuss ideas is important in promoting creativity in their writing.
Most importantly, students should be allowed the flexibility to make a mistake when attempting a challenge without having points docked. Instead, corrections should be made, and possible revisions should be discussed before any grade goes into the book. Improved transparency and discussion between students and teachers can make grading more equitable and less obstructive to the writing process.
Billittier said, “I would love to see some more writing opportunities without the ever looming grade hanging above your head, because that, in my opinion, really harms the writing process because students are quick to skip or go too quickly through the revision process– real writing is rewriting– and being able to teach the joy of the puzzle of writing and how to manipulate it artfully and creatively gets lost a little bit in the day-to-day hustle and bustle of the curriculum.”