I met an impressive cast of characters in my 9th grade writing class last year. Among them was the gambler who brought down the house in Vegas but was quickly killed off; the hero who saved his town from monster squirrels; the abusive father who demanded his son earn straight A’s, or else;and the modern-day Juliet who died of heartbreak after her parents rejected the love of her young life. More than once, I found myself wondering just how my students, who’d created these people, knew their subjects so well.
As anyone who’s ever listened to a 14-year-old will tell you, high school freshmen are certainly capable of exaggeration. But they’re also remarkably good—possibly better than adults—at telling the emotional truth. In reading the hundreds of writing assignments I gave last year, I learned far more about my 45 students (and how it feels to be 14) than I ever anticipated.
Good writing is immensely personal, and the goal, even in high school, is not to provide the same answer as your next-door neighbor or to re-create something that has already been done. Rather, the point is to tell a unique story or interpret a classic text in a different way—to share with your reader something new about what it means to be human.
If I’d said this to my students early on, their eyes would have glazed over. Instead, I began with a question I hoped would lead them to a similar conclusion. The prompt for their first in-class essay asked simply, “Why is writing important?”
Despite the fact that I’d dedicated two previous class periods to this question, most of the essays filled less than one page. A handful read more like freely associated bullet points. Many were pockmarked with grammatical errors, and few contained a sentence that could be interpreted, even loosely, as a thesis statement. I was shocked. Many of my students had been enrolled at our small private school since kindergarten, enjoying well-funded classes of fewer than 15. Yet when I lobbed them this softball, they failed to make contact. Something—not just their subject-verb agreement or punctuation skills—was horribly wrong.
Then it dawned on me: The problem was the question itself—or, rather, what it meant to them. They could have written pages on the importance of video games, the necessity of computers, the life-sustaining qualities of MySpace and text messages, but writing, in and of itself, simply didn’t strike them as important. This would have to change.
Six weeks of intensive grammar review and proofreading sessions later, my students were relieved when I gave them a new assignment. To make the most of a schedule change that had replaced two weeks of class with a health unit, I asked everyone to write a persuasive piece on a health-related topic of their choice.
Now that they were writing about sex, drugs, alcohol, and sleep deprivation, my students found the exercise much more interesting. They’d already dedicated countless hours of thought and discussion (both inside the classroom and out) to these topics, so I wasn’t introducing new subject matter. But I did make sure the sensitive topics were handled with care. I also promised that the persuasive-writing techniques I was teaching—ethos, logos, and pathos—would come in handy during the next curfew debate with a parent or guardian. The trust and logic associated with ethos and logos were noteworthy, but the emotional twist delivered by pathos was by far their favorite.
When I asked them to find examples of these techniques in their daily lives, they brought in advertisements for pet adoption, holiday-memory kits, and figure-enhancing bras, among other products. They realized, with some degree of shock, that writing in its various forms is not just a tortuous entity meant to lower their GPAs; people actually use it to communicate (and to sell products of dubious quality).
By now I had them laughing and listening. But the next two assignments, a personal-narrative unit followed by a creative-writing workshop, took the class to a deeper level. For both, I only required that the piece meet the specifications of its genre (fiction or nonfiction, for example), and that it contain an overarching point or argument. (“A thesis!” they cried with glee.)
As the first drafts arrived, the results were staggering. In 10 to 20 pages each, my students took on gang violence, domestic abuse, social politics, and the war in Iraq. A surprising number featured one or more deaths, including an Iraq- related story, which ended with a strikingly professional-looking letter to a soldier’s widow. I spent much of my time grading with one hand over my heart.
Equally poignant were the troubled protagonists and what they possibly revealed about their authors—the girl who declared herself a social chameleon; the boy who fought to the death “for his pride”; and the kid who escaped unnoticed from his parents’ house, built himself a cave, befriended a boy from the poor side of town, and became a hero by saving his new friend’s father’s life. The latter, written by a student who’d struggled to keep a C during the first semester, was a solid, nearly error-free 17 pages.
Following a research-paper unit, which was less exciting though still thought-provoking (I now know more about HIV prevention, string theory, and the Celtic faith than I ever could have imagined), my students begged and, ultimately, convinced me to let the topics of the final papers be of their choosing. I was careful not to smile while this back-and-forth occurred, lest I betray my pleasure at their excitement about writing.
Not surprisingly, most papers were either personal narratives or fiction pieces. One candidly depicted a recent struggle with depression and another, beginning in frustration and ending in triumph, told the story of one student’s experience in my class. Many featured the theme of brave encounters with mortality. And all of them, to my relief, contained some form of a thesis.
During the last week of school, I gave my students a light-hearted figurative-language exercise involving phrases such as “writing (in general)” and “persuasive essays.” There were plenty of comic responses (“In-class essays are like getting a porcupine shoved down your throat while Phil Collins plays in the background,” for example) and a few painful ones (“Vocab quizzes are like a huge mountain that I can’t climb”). Mainly, though, there were various inadvertent answers to the question I’d asked them back in September, including:
“Writing is like a duck. You may think it is ugly when you’ve just begun, but if you work on it and believe, it may just become a swan.”
“Writing is your imaginary friend who you can trust with your deepest secrets.”
“Writing class is like a baby salmon finally encountering the sea.”
Most teachers will tell you that they learn as much as they teach. My writing class was no exception. An avid reader and a constant writer, I walked into class believing that writing is important as a means of communication, a way to record history, a cornerstone of the business world. Over the course of the next 10 months, I had hoped to demonstrate this to my students.
In the process, however, they demonstrated something much more important to me: When the final bell rang in June, I walked away with a yearbook full of messages about writing’s most powerful significance—the ability to connect people, to put us in another’s skin, to teach us what it means to be human.
I can’t imagine a more valuable lesson.
A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 2007 edition of Teacher as Yeah, but What’s Writing For?