I wasn’t very accomplished as a writer when I was a kid. (Cue the two old guys on the balcony of the Muppet Show hollering, “And you still aren’t!”) In fact, I can’t ever really remember writing much at all in school, especially in elementary school.
Using those big ole fat writing pencils that had the same diameter as broom handles, it’s amazing we wrote anything decipherable at all. The lead content alone in those things should have killed us by the time we were adults. I DO remember, however, the first time a teacher actually noticed my writing (other than those short limericks in the bathroom stalls) and called attention to it in class, which was totally embarrassing on several levels.
My 9th grade English teacher tried desperately to coax a writing assignment out of the boys that usually sat on the back row, chairs propped up against the wall, thinking we were too cool to actually write something profound during class, like our names. Mrs. Lynn tried sweetening the pot by telling us we could write about anything we wanted, especially if it was a personal narrative.
The only recent experience I could recall was when my mom talked me into chaperoning my little sister and her friends to the movie theater on base. In my paper I related the “cat roundup” that took place in the theater as everyone tried to get concessions and then find seats in the dark because the movie had already started, having to continually get up and down to allow for the constant stream of bathroom buddies that trooped back and forth during the show, and did I mention sitting behind the tallest guy in the theater and having my sandals stick to the floor due to the amount of spilled soda that finally made its way under my seat from 12 rows back? I ended the assignment explaining that when I got home I was so tired I went and collapsed on my bed and later thought to myself, “What was the name of that movie?”
Mrs. Lynn read my paper to the class (while I took a sudden interest in my shoes) and explained she enjoyed reading it (grammatical mistakes and all) because it was something everyone could relate to and had probably happened to everyone at some point or another. I remember thinking someone had actually enjoyed reading what I had written.
Writing is one of the hardest things to teach in school, because the sheer amount of time and energy needed to read, reflect and comment on assignments is staggering. My hat is certainly off to high school teachers and those who sift through hundreds of papers each week reading, correcting and offering constructive feedback like, “Have you ever considered using paragraphs?”
Our focus in the schools these past few years has been intense when it comes to writing and the writing process, so I asked my fifth-grade class this week to respond to the question, “Do you like writing?” Why or why not? Their responses both amused and enlightened me:
• I love writing except for typing. Writing makes me feel like the pencil is my wand and I can create things like unicorns dancing on clouds and bacon running from a mob of people.
• I want to be an author when I grow up so others can read my stories.
• Writing is not my favorite because it can take a long time and most of the time you have to know stuff and meet deadlines.
• I like to write because I want to get good grades in math.
• Writing is terrific because you can do so many things with words that come into your mind like “petrified”, that’s an interesting word.
• I don’t like handwriting because my arm and hand gets tired really fast, and my pencil always breaks somehow, (it broke while I wrote that sentence).
• I love to write because it’s my ideas, my characters and my stories that get to come to life. I love finding synonyms for boring words and enjoy typing because I can change sizes and fonts.
• I like writing on the computer because when I write on paper I write slow, but on the computer even if I mess up I can use spell check, I like spell check.
I’ve found over the years that just like reading, kids will often find their “niche” and flourish when they find a subject or genre they like and are given the opportunity to explore it. The key is helping them discover that interest. Many of my students have a tendency to sit in front of the computer screen or piece of paper and stare into space while commenting, “I don’t know what to write.” I can certainly relate, which reminds me of the phrase “writer’s block, or when the imaginary friends in your head quit talking.”
I tell my class the sky’s the limit when it comes to future opportunities for using their writing skills — because, who knows, one day they may be a feature writer for a major news outlet, world renowned journalist, famous author or even a community columnist for their local newspaper. Martin Luther said, “If you want to change the world, pick up your pen and write.” In a world in desperate need of positive change, may I suggest we do just that.
Chad Hawkes is a fifth grade teacher at North Park Elementary School. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org