In the National Writing Project, we talked about purposes for writing. As a writer, my purposes for writing are clear, varied, and plentiful. As a teacher, I know students struggle to see authentic purposes for writing or to embrace the purposes that have been standardized by school and state standards.
I’ve read essays by upperclassmen that didn’t really start until the bottom of page two: they had written for a time around the topic but only got to what they really wanted to say about the topic until they had written about it. Of course, when I pointed that out they didn’t want to get rid of that writing; doing so, in their minds, would render all that work a waste. Leaving these unnecessary words was simpler than the alternative. I call this “thinking on paper” and it isn’t bad–but it isn’t what students think it is, a finalized draft.
As an English teacher and a writer, I can claim the benefits of writing, including the personal benefits, but students (wisely) consider the source: of course I would say that. Even a genius like Flannery O’Connor can’t convince them.
“I write to discover what I know.”
As writers, we reiterate the show don’t tell mantra. It is better, then, for me to show them “writing to understand,” and to do so in an authentic and engaging manner.
On April 12, 2013, this happened:
Later that night, Kobe posted this on Facebook:
The moment I read this, I was fascinated by what was happening here: Kobe was coming to terms with an experience by writing about it. I also knew I would usurp Kobe’s “street cred” to help me prove my point: sometimes we can write our way into a deeper, clearer understanding.
The more I read it, however, the more I saw potential in the writing. There is opportunity here for close reading, looking for transition, for claims; there is opportunity for peer review and feedback, suggesting how Kobe could revise this to fit a more traditional essay form.
I also remembered some other writings that could be drawn in for further comparison and analysis:
Students need to accept that some words are more for ourselves, that sometimes we write for no other purpose than coming to grips with something. This past Mother’s Day, I went to a restaurant with my wife and children, my father, and my father-in-law. There is a story there, but what I wrote that morning was more about me coming to an understanding; it wasn’t to share (even though it was on Facebook), and it wasn’t to prove anything to anyone. When I sat to write, I had no idea where it was going.
If students can get to that point, they will be happier as people and more successful as students. But they need to be taught.
If you like what you read here, please let me know. Comment, share, and follow the blog. I have a short PowerPoint and some guiding questions, as well as an annotated copy and clean copy of Kobe’s Facebook post. If you would like these resources or have any questions or suggestions, please contact me via the form at the bottom of this page.
College Readiness: Writing to Learn The difference between reflexivity and reflectivity in writing.
The Loop Writing Process Activity that could be adapted for all types of writing assignments.
Capacity Building Series: Writing to Learn (PDF) Activities and suggestions for all content areas.
Low-Stakes Writing Exercises: 3 Tips to Get Started Teaching Channel article with videos demonstrating writing to learn.