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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

A Word or Two...About Writing

By Peter DeWitt — December 30, 2012 5 min read
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Every now and then we pick up books that help us find our way out of the box we have been living in. Some people read all year long. Others read in pockets of time throughout the year.

Which kind of reader are you?

I read mostly articles and blogs but I am always looking for a good book. As much as we may go searching for them, some of the best books find us. Over the holidays I was presented with such a book. It was from a parent who knows that I write...or at least try to write. The title is Several Short Sentences About Writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg. Among many things, he is on the editorial board of the N.Y. Times.

Before you stop reading this blog because you think this is a book review, it’s not. However, I may actually provide you with other reasons to stop reading. The book did make me wonder a lot about how we teach writing. I worry that some teachers can be the vacuum cleaners of fun when it comes to teaching writing because they suck the fun right out of it. Klinkenborg’s book is fun and yet serious at the same time. It provokes thought.

• How do we teach writing?
• Do we make it fun?
• Do we like writing enough that we can teach it with integrity?
• Are we always concerned about the process and not about the enjoyment?

For full disclosure, as a former elementary school, I’m not so sure I did a hot job teaching writing to my first graders. I did what they taught me in college but I was easily amused. I wrote a sentence on the chalkboard (that’s the thing that we used chalk on) and the students had to copy it. Then they would draw a picture. First grade artwork always got to me because I loved the innocence in their drawing.

There were other times when I would draw a picture with chalk (it was my medium) and they would write what they thought was going on in the picture. As time went on, students would write their own sentence. We would work through ideas like this:

“Tell me what you did over the weekend.”
• “Write about your dog or cat.”
• “Write about your family.”
• “Is there anything new going on in your life? Write about that.”

Students would write one sentence or more if they could. As I reflect, I wonder if I always encouraged them to write more instead of encourage them to write a sentence that was high quality. There is power in even one sentence. Even the short ones. If there wasn’t, we wouldn’t see so many one sentence quotations Tweeted out or writers who use a quotation at the beginning of a chapter.

Klinkenborg says,
“You’ve been taught to believe that short sentences are childish,
Merely a first step toward writing longer sentences.
You’d like to think your education has carried you well past short sentences.
But you’ve been delivered into a wilderness of false assumptions and bad habits,
A desert of jargon and weak constructions, a land of linguistic barbarism,
A place where it’s nearly impossible to write with clarity or directness,
Without clichés or meaningless phrases”
(2012. p. 5).

There is a great deal of meaning in what we write, if we write correctly. It shouldn’t always take profound little books like Klinkenborg’s to teach us that. We should also make sure we are teaching students about the power of their own writing. Writing, contrary to what students may think, isn’t always done for a grade. We need only look to letters and cards we have saved over the years to remind us of that.

Writing can be engaging, exciting, and can help students convey feelings that they may not be able to say out loud. The great thing about kids is that they don’t always get caught up in the meaning of the sentence. Sometimes they’re just proud of the sentence itself. “The meaning of the sentence is never a substitute for the sentence itself, Not to a six year-old” (2012. p. 20).

Using Fine Art to Inspire Writing
It sounds silly but I used to use pictures of fine art, like El Jaleo by John Singer Sargent or Boston Common by Childe Hassam to inspire my students to write. We discussed the paintings as a class.

“What was going on?”
• “What are the characters in the painting doing?”
• “What do you think they will do next?”

That’s the great thing about art. It’s left up to our own interpretation and it can inspire even the youngest students to write or draw.

I know some people may believe that the point of writing is to get high marks on a state test but I don’t believe that is so. Teaching writing is about teaching students a way to express their feelings and show their creativity. When we make writing so much about the process, we take the fun out of it. We inspire our students to hate writing and not to love it.

Depending on our own educational experience when we were young, we either had profound writing moments or lackluster ones. If we had the latter experience, we need to change the way we teach it. If too many of our students are bored with writing, then we are doing something wrong.

Klinkenborg says,
“Do you remember feeling, when you were writing a paper for school,
That your vocabulary was steadily shrinking?
By the end, the same few words seemed to be buzzing
Around and around in your head, like flies weary of feeding.
That a symptom of boredom.
You were bored from the start for good reason.
You were repeatedly asked to persuade or demonstrate or argue,
To reiterate or prove or recite or exemplify,
To go through the motions of writing. You were almost never asked to notice or observe, witness or testify”
(2012. p. 31).

In the End
Writing can be exciting. Whether it is done on the computer or by freehand, it provides us all with a way to express ourselves and communicate. Students do it by text, or 140 characters on Twitter. Even those students who say they hate to write can find the benefits in it. They just haven’t noticed the right medium.

“So what is noticing?
A pinpoint of awareness,
The detail that stands out amid all the details.
It’s catching your sleeve on the thorn of the thing you notice.
And paying attention as you free yourself”

• How do you get your students to free themselves and notice?

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Klinkenborg, Verlyn (2012). Several Short Sentences About Writing. Alfred A. Knopf. New York, N.Y.

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.