Thursday, March 12, 2009

Writing on Demand

I used to know that school was deadening, artificial, and prison-like. Why do I keep forgetting that?

Lately, the whole phenomenon of the "writing assignment" seems especially depressing and artificial to me. Students are required to write about things that they know nothing and care nothing about; sometimes they are required to write the opposite of what they really think.

An example of that was the writing assignment I was helping a student with today. She had to write an article against abortion, even though she is an abortion supporter. She was also told that she could use no religious arguments or even refer to religion in her essay. But the more she researched the evidence against abortion, the more she found that there was no credible scientific argument against abortion. Basically, all the arguments against it are religious. But she couldn't cite those. So she had to pretend in her essay that weak arguments, unsupported by science, had more validity than they really do: that abortion causes women to become depressed or infertile or have breast cancer, etc.

This is similar to the difficulty I experienced on Tuesday, when a student had to write an essay explaining why she thought the government should intervene in the sinking economy. The student didn't understand the global financial crisis well at all. So her essay consisted of a list of everything that's wrong--unemployment, foreclosures, banks going under-- with no real explanation of how government intervention would help relieve those problems. Her argument was basically, "Things are all messed up, so we have to do something!" But people who think the government should do nothing say the same thing: "Things are all messed up, so keep the government out of it! Let the market fix itself!"

Paul Goodman wrote a book called Growing Up Absurd. He became a home school advocate, in the hopes of reducing the absurdity in the lives of children and young people. I think he was right: school is a major source of absurdity in students' lives, in large part because of writing assignments that mean nothing to the student.

Donalyn Miller, who wrote The Book Whisperer, developed a reading program for her sixth graders that enables them to choose the books that they will read. The class does not all read the same novel together; each student reads forty books a year, and that is the main requirement. Why couldn't we make similar requirements about writing? Students could be required to write a certain number of words per semester, but that writing could be about anything, and in any form: in the form of a formal essay, or blogs, or poetry, or raps, or letters to people.

It would be a lot more fun to help students with writing that they really care about, rather than having to read and fix up these make-work essays that nobody cares about.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with you about the free choice on topics, but I believe that students should certainly be explicitly taught different formats, and the expectations of each. Persuasive essay, Informative essay, Comparison essays, and etc.

    Each format, from blog, to poetry, to formal letter has it's purpose and design, but students should be free to write on a topic that they feel passionate about. I imagine that would make it more engaging for teachers as well.