Are You Teaching the Beauty of Writing?
by Arina Bokas, Ph.D.
“I’m just not a good writer,” a student of mine admits apologetically, settling for a rather average fate in her Freshmen Composition class before the semester has even begun. “I guess my brain is just not good for it.There is nothing I can do.” It’s clear that she didn’t understand the beauty of writing.
This disposition of an intelligence-based limitation, all too familiar to English teachers, doesn’t say much about students’ writing abilities, but speaks volumes about their own mindsets. Based on Carol Dweck’s classification of fixed and growth mindsets, those students who tend to blame their intelligence for a lack of performance, possess fixed mindsets and believe that there is nothing they can do to repair this. Somewhere, somehow, they were led to believe in their deficiency and have been going through the systems that just confirmed it. The beauty of writing is, sadly, lost on them.
While modern biology identifies humans as essentially emotional and social creatures, when it comes to education, we often neglect to consider that the high-level cognitive skills we try to teach our students, including processes related to language, “…do not function as rational, disembodied systems, somehow influenced by but detached from emotion and the body. Instead, these crowning evolutionary achievements are grounded in a long history of emotional functions.” (Immordino-Yang & Damasio, 2007, p.3)
Writing, by its very nature emotive and highly personal, not only can but should serve as a path to self-understanding, self-expression, and perhaps even as a catalyst for a transformational change.
Changing the mindset
Last fall, on the first day of my ENGL 101 course, I offered something different to my students. Instead of going over the syllabus and attendance policy, I started by giving each of them a sheet paper divided into three columns. I asked them to write down the names of a color, an image, and a symbol that writing brings to their minds, followed by reasons for these associations. (Color-Image-Symbol thinking routine). They worked quietly – some were writing, some were drawing. As they were finishing up, curiosity had filled the room. Was there a right answer?
Their responses were amazingly insightful and reflective of emotions:
“Purple – it’s a very deep color that has many shades that give off different moods;”
“Red – emotions; passion about what is written, anger, love, warmth;”
“Green– a more expressive color; it can be used to describe writing in a way;”
“Orange – when I write, it is exciting for me; it is always different; always a choice;”
“Gray – it’s a mixture of black and white; it is like writing because in every story, there are always two sides; every story could be seen as positive or negative depending on a reader.
My students saw images of “the mind” because writing comes from thoughts; “a half-dead flower” because writing only lives when it comes from the heart, “a rainbow” to represent ideas; and “the universe” because writing has no limits.
I asked them to write one word on a sticky note to describe how they want to feel when they write (Chalk Talk thinking routine) – “everything, careless, inspired, completed, excited, relaxed, calm, like myself” were their answers. Writing is… “beautiful, heartfelt, universal, awesome, joyful, idealistic, insightful.”
We took a deeper look at writing; what it means to us, how we feel about it and about ourselves when we write. We talked about perceptions and differences. No one was left unaffected. We all learned from each other.
I believe that by letting students develop their own emotional connections and promoting their thinking about the written word and its power, we can help them to find their place in the world of writing.
We can help them find the beauty of writing.
Arina Bokas, Ph. D., is an instructor of English at Mott Community College, Flint, MI. She also hosts Clarkston Community Schools’ Future of Learning public television show, featuring multiple aspects of a Culture of Thinking and Global Competence. Follow Arina Bokas on Twitter.
Dweck, C. (2006) Mindset: The New Psychology of Success New York, NY: Random House
Immordino-Yang, M. H.& Damasio A. (2007) “We Feel, Therefore We Learn: The Relevance of Affective and Social Neuroscience to Education” Mind, Brain, and Education, Vol.1, No.1, pp.3-10.
Ritchhart, R., Church, M., & Morrison, K. (2011). Making thinking visible: How to promote engagement, understanding, and independence for all learners. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
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