“Do we teach kids to hate writing?” The Spicy Learning Blog author Royan Lee asked recently.
Lee, currently an intermediate literacy teacher in Richmond Hill, Ontario, Canada, has had experience teaching all elementary grades. His conclusion is that yes, teachers turn kids off writing by not allowing them to write for pleasure. Within his frame of reference—the community of those who teach pre-adolescents—I believe he’s right.
Writing for pleasure is not the same thing as writing for fun. Mihaly Csikszentmihaly in Flow and elsewhere distinguishes between fun, which can be mindless occupation, and pleasure which is results from doing something that’s challenging but not too hard, something that interests you and makes you stretch.
Youngsters can learn at least as much about writing from writing for pleasure as they can from writing that’s not age-appropriate. The difficulty, I think, is that many educators lack a good understanding of developmental psychology. They try to push youngsters to do writing tasks that are beyond their cognitive capability.
The most egregious example of age-inappropriate writing activity I’ve seen is the “Nutrition Vignette” included in A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, edited by Anderson and Krathwohl, 2001. As I read it, I was struck by how closely it resembled the final project a large, for-profit university required me to assign students in a 400-level college capstone class in communications. My students, most of whom were between 25 and 40 and in middle management positions, had a terrible time handling the the assignment. The material in the taxonomy text had been used by a teacher for a class of second graders.
Pushing youngsters to do writing tasks beyond their years is only one of the ways educators have of teaching students to hate writing.
When students reach their teens, teachers have a second way of teaching students to hate writing: they push them to do writing tasks beyond their emotional capability. Writing assignments that demand students share their feelings or be creative make many teens feel they are being bullied by their English teachers.
The results of this push are most obvious in teen-age boys, although some girls suffer from it too. The teens may not even have words to describe their feelings. Their mood may change before they would work out a label for it. Teen-age guys have an additional problem in that they don’t have good role models in English classes for ways of expressing the kinds of emotions female teachers find acceptable. And make no mistake, female teachers, who are the majority of English teachers, have very decided opinions about what emotions are acceptable to express in writing assignments.
When guys get to my first year college writing course and learn they won’t be required to discuss their emotions in writing, their relief manifests itself in their writing. They go from “I can get through this,” to “this isn’t as bad as I thought it would be,” to “I can do this.” By the end of the course, a few have discovered or discovered again that writing can give them pleasure.
With some thought and effort, teachers could make their typical writing tasks for elementary students and their typical writing tasks for high school students appropriate to students’ cognitive and emotional development. The really difficult task would be developing tasks for those in between, the middle school students.
Those middle school years are important in the development of students’ writing abilities. Students in middle school must be encouraged to view writing as a pleasurable activity while moving toward development of a writing skill set for college and career. I suspect the way to accomplish that lofty goal is by selecting the right teachers rather than by adopting a particular program: programs have a disconcerting way of doing the right thing at the wrong time.