Tuesday, February 5, 2013

What Matters

Flip through a literature textbook. Pull a novel from a bookcase. Open the newspaper or a magazine.

The writing we'll find wasn't assigned or ground through the teeth of a rubric. The writing we'll find, in its current form, was discovered through the revision of ideas.

And through the freedom to write about what matters.

I would say all writers write to discover some truth through their own honesty, but that is not entirely true either. Yet honesty is the difference. And, honestly,  this much is true--we can only grow as a writer by writing about what matters to us--with honesty.

For example, I could assign "Write an essay about the very first friend that you remember." Or I could ask students to "Write about a major problem in our community." I could. And most, if not all, of my students could write something based on those prompts. However, none of them  might care about either of those topics. And if they do not care, then they can not grow as a writer. It is as simple as that.

They would go through the motions. Write something. And say little.

No rubric or writing prompt ever formed a better writer. Neither ever transformed anyone into a Welton Academy protege of Mr. John Keating.


A rubric is a rag to polish our gems. A rubric does not encourage writers, nor does it inspire writers. A rubric is a guide to being better editors of our work, which is indeed important. It matters.

But let us be honest. No rubric ever made someone a better writer. No Henry James. No T.S. Eliot. No Libba Bray. No Jay Asher. No writer was ever built on a rubric.

If we want to help foster better writing, then we must help students understand that the best writers are those who say something.

Teach our kids to say something with their words. (And how can they do that if we cuff them to a prompt that they do not care about?)

Yes, I am suggesting that we have a better chance at helping our students improve their writing by encouraging and modeling writing about topics that excite, anger, inspire, reveal, fascinate...we have a better chance at them having something to say if they have a chance to write about what matters to them.

Encourage them to write about what matters to them.

Yes, teach them the distinctions among informative, persuasive, and narrative writing. Yes, show them examples of those modes. Discuss them, share them, investigate them. Revisit these modes throughout the year. Yes, teach them.

Yes guide them and help them make connections to the literature you read. Yes, guide them, lead them, mentor them.

Then set them free.

Set them free to keep asking themselves, "why does this matter to me?" Teach them to write a draft, read it, highlight a line, a phrase, a word--the core of the piece--the part that matters most to them. Then take that line, place on a new sheet of paper--and write. Dig into it. Keep doing this until your writing surprises you...until the essay is trying to tell you something...until you learn something about yourself, or why planes fly, or why cats are afraid of water, or why you hate summer camp.

If you have written something that has not surprised you or revealed something or made you even more curious...then, we might as well just use prompts. Because we are not digging enough. We are not curious, or angry, or inspired. We are just passing time.

And why do that?

J.R.R. Tolkien liked writing about Hobbits and Ents.

David Brooks likes exploring topics as a NY Times Op-Ed columnist.

J.K. Rowling liked writing about Muggles and the Dark Arts.

Mark Bowden likes writing about current events, politics, crime, sports--he writes what makes him curious.

Emily Dickinson liked using poetry to help her examine ideas such as immortality, nature, and death.

Kurt Vonnegut liked writing satire. And we will find Vonnegut's voice in his work--we will find him writing about things that disgust him and things that fill him with awe.

And so I ask you--who writes about the things that do not care about?

The American student.


© CheyAnneSexton http://cheyannesexton.etsy.com
Give your students this gift--break free from the canned writing prompt and use the rubric for all that it is--a rag to polish the diamonds they can produce with time and pressure. If we would only give them the freedom and time to explore and dig, and dig, and dig deeper still...because a rag can polish a beat-up rusty Chevy too.

And it would still be a beat-up rusty Chevy that nobody is buying.

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