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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

A Profound Writing Experience

By Peter DeWitt — May 15, 2012 3 min read
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A few weeks ago, I sat on an author panel at the Albany Children’s Book Festival in Albany, NY. The other three author panelists were Coleen Paratore, Jarrett J. Krosoczka and Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich. The moderator asked us when we first remembered writing something profound as children. We were supposed to describe the moment that defined us as writers...at a young age.

The panel discussion took place after NY Times Best Selling Author Gregory Maguire gave an outstanding presentation about his childhood and how he became a writer. He began drawing pictures and writing stories at a very young age. As he showed the pictures in his presentation I was amazed by his talent at the age of five and up. He clearly had a great career path ahead of him.

After Gregory spoke, I sat and listened to the three other panelists tell stories from third grade when they wrote amazing stories that made them realize they wanted to be a writer. I panicked because I realized I didn’t have one. I lacked a profound writing experience from my childhood. There was not a moment in my young life when I knew I would be a writer. There was not one aha moment where I met my destiny.

Had I blocked it all out? Did I have a child writing prodigy moment but was too embarrassed to share it? After all, I am a writer (some of you may debate that) so I must have shown a fair amount of talent from a young age? The truth is I did not. When I was young I was the quiet kid who never spoke up and hated to be called on by teachers. When I was called on I usually had the wrong answer because I panicked under pressure.

Dormant Talent?
In fact, when I did write I was told I wrote too slow. I was more concerned about my handwriting than I was about the content. In high school during speed writing assignments I was the last to finish and I had less words written down on paper than my peers. What is my point with all of this? As important as elementary, middle and high school are to all children, life doesn’t stop when high school ends. Our life experiences help us grow if we choose to learn from them.

Some students do not show amazing talent at a young age. Sometimes the trials and tribulations we find in life put us on a trajectory towards a different path; a path that might be more successful. Other times, as students mature, they meet teachers who they have a strong connection with and find a strength that was once a weakness.

Our lives are not decided for us in elementary school. The point of schooling is to educate but also to build a foundation for students. Foster creativity and an excitement for learning but also provide students with an understanding that they have their whole life to grow. Sometimes that may involve learning to love something you hated, and other times it will involve realizing sometimes we’re just not good at everything.

Forcing Students to Write
After the panel was over a teacher told me a story about a young man in her class who loves to read but hates to write. She asked me for advice on how to get him to write. My quick response was that I was happy to hear that he loved to read. In fact, she said he devoured books. However, I also said that not all kids are going to love writing.

Not all children are supposed to be great writers, just like they’re not going to be great basketball players or become contestants on American Idol. The only thing we can do as educators is to provide them with the opportunities to write. In our classrooms and schools we have to create an environment where students can take risks and not always have the fear that their writing will be dissected and corrected.

In addition, sometimes I worry that we do things that will only foster a dislike of writing. Some teachers and principals use writing as a discipline technique. Students are asked to write while they are in trouble. As much as there are times students have to write down why they did something wrong, having them write what they did wrong repeatedly will only lead them to equate writing with a punishment. Having them miss recess everyday so they can finish writing assignment after writing assignment will help foster a dislike for writing.

In these times of constant data collection, some educators correct everything that students write. For even the best writers, that constant concern about being critiqued will suck the life out of their joy of writing. Not all kids will have a profound writing moment but we need to do what we can to at least give them the opportunity.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.