Mission: Find Joy in Academic Writing
Yesterday, I posted about my Greenbelt Writing project with my General English 6 students. We found joy, freedom, and love for just sitting down and writing. Now, on the same Sunday in April that I decided to toss out my old game plan, I was also faced with another dilemma.
My Advanced English 6 students were finishing up a novel, Boys Without Names by Kashmira Sheth. In case you have not read this text, it is a great novel that discusses a young male protagonist who survives child labor. He uses storytelling to bring people together and to find his freedom. Sheth also is heavy with the figurative language, so it is a great review of these devices as we end the school year. We were also faced with writing a five-paragraph argumentative essay as the summative project after reading the novel. Can you imagine the look on my face?
I had just given my General 6 students all of this amazing freedoom, and it felt unfair to put the others in a metaphorical "writing prison" with rules and boundaries. I wanted Advanced students to have the same ability to find joy in their writing. I wanted to merge the academic notion of response-to-text with joy-filled independent writing projects. My hope was that projects driven by choice could have the same impact and assessment quality as the academic essay because they were driven by desire to put thought on paper. I made the move.
I first looked at my pacing guide to check-in where I was at in terms of the school year. My pacing guide is broken down in the Advanced curriculum to have a paper and a novel each and every six week marking period. Here is the gist of the products my students are to master each marking period:
1. Back to School Sixth Grade Read and a personal narrative paper
2. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor and an argumentative paper
3. Uglies by Scott Westerfeld and an informational paper
4. Journey to Topaz by Yoshiko Uchida and a research paper
5. Boys Without Names by Kashmira Sheth and an argumentative paper
6. Teacher Choice
This year, research ran long so Boys Without Names has backed up into the sixth marking period. You will notice after looking at these texts a few things. Here are my observations:
- Almost all of them have a female protagonist (not opposed...just an observation)
- All of them are on depressing struggles in the past (again not opposed...but just an observation)
- All of them have an academic paper that is heavy on structure attached to them besides the first marking period....stop here.
I try to work creative writing and other types of writing into the curriculum; however, academic writing, as it usually does, takes control over what I am teaching my students. Writing turns into a setup from the setup. There are five paragraphs, a certain formula, a pattern, a structure...but the type of writing I love to do on an often basis doesn't have any of this. It is free. It involves a type of joy. This joy is maintained even when I am responding to a great book, analyzing a certain selection from a piece of literature, or discussing an informational article. I have already taught them all of the structures...why not give them room to play?
Cue Ralph Fletcher's Joy Write. I wanted to apply these ideas to the final project for Advanced. Like yesterday's post, students were given different types of genres to write about and they were given the choice. I also allowed them to write in class. Giving them this time created more of a low-stakes environment because the outside pressure of finishing at home was taken off of my of students' shoulders.
Similar to my General 6 students, my Advanced 6 students made their genre selections and they were off to the races. My only rule or criteria from them was that their response had to have found inspiration from the novel. They were given multiple days to write in class. Here were some of their questions:
"Do I have to use third person?"
"How many paragraphs do I have to have?"
"Where should my claim statement be?"
"What verb tense should I be writing in?"
There were more. Some of their insecurities were exposed because they were afraid to make mistakes. I will say this, these students have been trained to create an amazing academic essay. But, do they have joy in their writing? Did they know how to write in a "feral" way as Fletcher puts it? He states:
"Students may not always consider such activity "writing"; my research suggests that they often do not. Indeed, the confining conditions that surround school writing have been removed. There's no adult looking over their shoulder, no multiple drafts, no mandatory revisions. There's no standard, no anchor paper, or rubric to follow. No editing checklist, due date, or impending grade. But for many students, this low-stakes writing will have a higher impact than any of the "school writing" they produce" (62).
This begged a bigger question: What writing would they produce when given the freedom from the self-proclaimed "ink queen?" Students published their posts to the class Kidblog and then took a day to comment on them. My favorite reactions so far? The next day multiple students have asked me to keep reading their classmates posts. As writing teachers, we want students to create a community of writers; this just often comes by the way of forced peer revision and not an organic desire to share writing in and out of the classroom. What better way to build trust and safety in a writing zone than create a community where is it okay to post your writing? Thanks, blogging.
One thing that I have noticed as a trend on my blog is the desire to merge the creative and the academic forms of writing. My Advanced students did a Genre Remix project of their MLA papers, and my students also wrote their own Dystopian stories after reading Westerfeld's text. I compromised my pacing guide to allow more room for freedom and creativity. It is all too often that joy is associated with no rules or just creative writing, and after reading Joy Write, I thought about the idea that it so important to find joy in academic writing as well. Why can't their be joy in rules? Is that even a valid question? Perhaps not.
I desire to give them more freedom in the future with a project like this after we are done reading a novel. I would maybe leave it to the end of the school year like I did this time. Teach them the structures and then let them run wild. However, I also have that nagging feeling behind me that this should be taught all the way along. As the Dalai Lama stated:
"Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively"
In the meantime, I am left with reflection as to how to balance district writing curriculums so that they are responsive to state standards and are also dripping with joy. We need to infuse more joy into our writing curriculums for the sake of our students interaction with the institution that is school, but more so, we want to create lifelong writers that desire to find joy in their own writing.
Writing Mindset Reflection: How do you balance your curriculum? Should students learn the rules first to break them?