Few things can be so boring and deadly as the writing class filled with reluctant writers. And few people are so unmotivated and reluctant as the reluctant writer.
Reluctant writers often have had poor experiences with school in general and writing in particular. They see writing as a painful, confusing, and pointless exercise—a viewpoint they’re not shy to express, at length, whenever asked, and frequently when not. You might throw up your hands in despair—how does anyone teach anything to such a class? However, there are methods to address the writing –averse class and turn its students into a group of aspiring and motivated writers.
Negative Past Experiences
One of the major problems students have with writing is negative past experiences. These experiences might include teachers who didn’t care about their ideas, or told them they were “wrong”; an over-focus on correctness such as comma placement and less on what the writer had to say; an over-focus on really nonessential material, such as setting up the heading of their work. After years of having their work covered in red ink, many students simply give up. This is not to say that grammar and punctuation are unimportant, of course. But they should be introduced to students in their correct place—as tools to written communication, rather than the purpose of writing itself.
Not Seeing the Purpose of Writing
Related to the over-focus on issues of correctness is not seeing the larger picture, the purpose of writing. Many students see writing as a pointless exercise, something one does only in school which has no relation to anything in “real” life. Talking to students about the many functions of writing—to contest a bill, to express love, to critique a movie, to create stories and song lyrics—will help students begin to see the many functions of the written form beyond what could possibly be expressed in a text message or a tweet.
Not Having the Tools to Write
Another problem for novice writers is just not having the tools to write—not even knowing where to begin, often. When given an assignment, many students just sit over a blank page with no ideas and real notion of even how to get an idea to write about. Or they may, with much trepidation, actually write an introduction of some sort, but then just freeze, not knowing where to go from there. These are some of the explanations for the blank-faced student sitting over a blank page.
Lonely, Noninteractive Process
A major concern in writing instruction is that even today it is taught and practiced as a solitary pursuit—most written pieces are individual, not collaborative efforts, often written while alone. Humans are by nature social creatures, and many of today’s students in particular have been raised in various groupings at school, home, daycare, and so forth. Therefore, these students crave the interaction they just don’t get while writing.
Not Having Efforts Recognized
A last concern is students not having their efforts recognized. Again, the purpose of writing is to communicate, and if the teacher just files the student writing after grading it, the whole purpose of writing it seems thwarted. Students, like people everywhere, want their efforts validated, some recognition that their ideas were understood by another person.
Methods to Turn Writing Apathy into Writing Enthusiasm
Discuss What Makes Good Writing
I like to begin the term by discussing what makes good writing, when students have read something and thought it was well-written, that they enjoyed reading, that they wish they had written, etc. Usually at some point, a student (usually with downcast eyes) states that she is not a good writer and therefore is incapable of judging good writing. I’ll then say that I can’t paint, but I know a good from bad painting. This opens up the door to students’ experiences as readers and what they value as readers—which are usually not comma placement and spelling but rather vivid details, ability to organize them, the ability to communicate a theme or main idea through such devices as repetition. Not coincidentally, these qualities of a clear main idea, organization, and details are the very qualities that are generally recognized by experts as “good writing.” I’ll at this point hand out the grading rubric for the term and show how many of the qualities students have identified as “good writing” are actually on the rubric.
Demonstrate Value of Writing
As often as the first day of class, recognizing that many students in the class are reluctant writers, I’ll ask how many in class really don’t like writing. Somewhat sheepishly, many students put up their hands. I’ll thank them for their honesty, and then we’ll move into what they don’t like about writing, and they’ll usually catalogue the reasons mentioned in this article, one of the main reasons being not feeling that writing means anything, that it has any value. This gives me the opportunity to discuss the things that writing can do for them: lodge a complaint, express a viewpoint, declare love, etc.
Examples of Different Qualities of Writing
After students have participated in the discussion of good writing and studied the rubric, they are ready to judge strong and not so strong writing. I’ll pass out representative papers, gathered with permission from students in past semesters and with names removed, and have current students use the rubric to “grade” the paper. Then I’ll tell students what grades the papers actually received. There is usually a remarkable consistency in the student and teacher grades (sometimes students will actually grade more accurately and according to the rubric than I did, perhaps because my objectivity was skewed by the writer’s personality or effort.) This exercise further cements students’ view of themselves as writers, able to judge quality in writing.
Teach the Writing Process and Give Students the Tools to Achieve
Once students are “fired up” about writing, it’s time to learn the writing process. That writing is a process of stages from brainstorming to drafting to editing surprises many students—they are under the misconception that the professional writers of those beautiful essays in their books cranked them out in one sitting in one draft. Showing students the process most writers go through is helpful.
Make Writing Interactive and Recognize Student Achievement
To make writing more interactive, have students work with each other as much as possible—brainstorming ideas together, reading drafts of their papers aloud, proofreading each other’s work. These activities are likely to have students looking forward to rather than dreading writing class.
Teaching a class of reluctant writers is a challenge indeed.
However, through such activities raising awareness of what good writing is as well as the purposes of writing and making the whole process more interactive, students will transform from reluctant to enthusiastic writers.
What methods do you use to raise student enthusiasm for writing?
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