Remember the soundtrack of our youth, drifting out of transistor radios and blaring from dashboard speakers as we cruised through unending summer nights? We listened while Wolfman Jack howled and scowled, enticing a generation of rock-and-roll teenagers to "get naked!''
What he was trying to do was break down at least one layer of the wall between the self-oriented adolescent world and the bigger picture called reality. Without relying on psychological theories or jargon, he urged us to shed our inhibitions and be real with one another.
There are certain things we require students to do in school, especially during the early adolescent years, that make them uncomfortable. We ask them, for example, to shower together after gym class and to share their writing in English class. Both are utilitarian activities. On the surface, especially to those of us somewhat removed from our teenage years, they hardly seem threatening. Yet both are. They expose that which teenagers keep most private and are most insecure about: their bodies and their emotions. Add to this the fact that teachers remain clothed--we merely pass out the towels and collect the papers--and you have an intimidating power structure, not a safe learning environment.
In the teaching of writing, we encourage our students to expose themselves figuratively--to share their feelings and vulnerabilities, their innermost thoughts. This kind of public self-disclosure--this undressing--is no less unnerving to the fragile adolescent psyche than a literal disrobing.
If we expect our students to open up in our writing classes, then we as teachers cannot sit safely on the sidelines like educational voyeurs. We need to take risks, too. I have asked students for their input on my own writing, and they have been open and honest, even about very personal subjects. One morning, some of my 7th graders stood in the hall passing around an article of mine from the morning newspaper. They not only enjoyed reading their own quotes, but they also appreciated seeing my inner thoughts--on Father's Day and parenting--along with their own. We were out there together, in print, for the world to see.
Writing should not be boring. Being naked certainly isn't. It may make different people feel different ways--from embarrassed and uncomfortable to natural and free--but it is never boring. So, when it comes to writing, being naked helps tremendously. The less we hide of our inner selves, the more interesting, unique, and relevant our writing becomes.
Shedding inhibitions takes time. Just as some kids are satisfied rubbing on a layer of deodorant after gym class to avoid disrobing, others are satisfied writing trite, vague, impersonal papers in English class. Given the opportunity and time to "freewrite'' and keep journals, students gradually become more comfortable and willing to write and put personal ideas and thoughts down on paper.
When asked why they keep journals or write notes to friends, students say, "Writing things out is taken more seriously and confidentially.'' "It helps me decide what to do and sort out feelings.'' "It gets things that bother me about friends and family off my mind.'' "It makes me feel more comfortable.'' Students find personal writing cathartic, even though it is something they fear and avoid--at least at first.
If our students are to write about things that matter, things that are important and meaningful to them, we need to make our classrooms safe havens: no judgments, no inhibitions, and no clothed teachers looking on as everyone else squirms in embarrassment. In the Wolfman's words, we need to get naked.
The author teaches 7th and 8th grade English at Valhalla (N.Y.) Middle School.