Friday, March 8, 2013

They Need to Write Something Today

It started out as the good parent thing to do: reading the E-mail update from the middle school language arts teacher about the current topics the kids were studying, projects, due dates and the like. The teacher even went so far as to question the parents about their experience with said topics. "What is your writing process like?" "What are your thoughts on revision?"

It then became an opportunity for me to share, thinking the teacher would use the responses as part of her teaching material. I took on a few questions in some detail. What I wasn't expecting was the follow-up E-mail from the teacher, asking me to be a guest speaker to share directly with some classes about my experience with writing.

Suddenly, I had a Dad moment, as in my Dad. Being a now-retired professor, he loves any opportunity to get back into a classroom environment to share his stuff! I definitely didn't accept my invitation with the same kind of confidence and excitement that he would have. This is middle school in 2013 after all. (Not to mention that I have a middle schooler who could potentially be subjected to this presentation!) But I did think I had something to offer.

Thankfully, the teacher had some thought questions in mind, which gave me some structure for a talk out of the gate. I am not a writing or English major. I don't teach writing. Still, I have had many, many opportunities to write, for different audiences, in different formats, for different media. I could just share "My Life as a Writer," which sounds like a composition I would have written back in fifth grade. (I wrote so many "My Life as a..." stories that year that my teacher finally told me I had to write under a new premise. Good for him!)

I outlined my talk question by question, filling in details as if I were teaching students why we write and how to do it. Then, I hit the attic for the box of writing samples. There are so many items in that box, even as I have tried to pare things down over the years. I've thrown away diaries, but I still have a file full of lyrics to marching band fight songs and numerous work-related song parodies. Lots of newsletters, magazine articles, brochures and, now, even a book entry, but, more importantly, a story behind the story for each. Plenty of things to share!

I went in with some expectations. I figured I'd know some of the kids. Some, but not many, as it turned out. I figured there would be some issues with gaining their interest. Although my girl is a language arts aficionado, I knew most of the larger eighth grade class was not. This proved to be quite true, even beyond the point of my expectations. I expected the kids to participate by the time we got to the end of the talk, at least having one question or comment in mind. Hmmm......

The teacher, on the other hand, wrote down so many things on a piece of paper the first time I spoke that I had to wonder what all I had actually said. When I spoke the second time, it was clear that she had taken notes, as she had my basic skeletal outline for the presentation up on the screen for the class to copy down. YIKES! No pressure.... Nothing but encouraging, she thought I had offered up just what was needed, as the classes were to begin their pursuit of subject matter research in preparation for a writing project.

She and I spoke afterward of how much language arts has changed from when we went to school. We both remember having English being taught seperately from Reading. Now, all of the elements of both are taught together throughout middle school, which is how high school still works. But the loss of time in being able to focus teaching on and for students to perfect the basics of writing shows. The advancements in technology are not helping in this regard, as I tried to persuade the students that their future success will require more communication than text talk and emoticons.

I polled the classes to see how many students were interested in pursuing writing as a career. Only one or two per class. I changed up the question: "How many of you think you'll be writing in your jobs?" Again, the same one or two plus another one or two. Really? I reminded them that they will all need to write a college essay or a cover letter for a job application.

Walking away from this experience, I take away a couple of things. I did connect with a few students, helping them to narrow down research topics and suggesting ways to get started with research. That was especially gratifying. The teacher reminded me that it was important to give the students the lowdown on writing, even if they did not fully appreciate it. At some point, they will look back and think, "Oh, yeah--what she said that time." Planting seeds. Good reminder! 

I also see the opportunity for another talk, if not a change in the curriculum. Students are not making a connection between 'writing' and communicating using words. Kids too often see writing as a have-to-do, as in, "She's making us write 5 paragraphs about this!" The larger picture of being able to share with others what you have learned through writing is not operative for students today. Kids are getting their information from the Internet, videos, radio, and their friends on their phones. But, doesn't anybody think about who is writing up all of that information?

Even when texting or posting to a social media site, they are using words to communicate thoughts and information. Are they going to choose to do it well, with intention and purpose? What lands in print, even electronically, is hard to erase. What you write speaks to who you are. It really does. 

It's time--past time, honestly--to revisit what our kids are learning and opining about writing. The world needs writers!

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