As I walked briskly down Independence Avenue in Washington, D.C. last autumn while visiting a friend, the click, click, click, click of my heels added to the cacophony of the street vendors, construction workers, vehicles, and the throng of people who each added their own particular noise to the mix. Where were they all going? What were they doing? What were their passions? As I looked into the faces of the river of humanity I was passing by, I could see purpose and determination. To have their say and move on, to keep moving to what they hoped was a better way of life.
I think of that instance now when I see students who struggle with writing. We all know the child who sits at his desk, staring at the paper or doodling with his pencil after you have announced a freewriting activity. He stares with glazed, dreamy eyes out of the window or lays his head on the desk. With frustration mounting, you could be asking yourself, “What else can I do to encourage Bobby to write? I have already shortened his assignment, given him ideas of what to write about, and he has just about exhausted my patience!” At this point it is time to takea step back. Bobby obviously still sees writing as a waste of his time, as a mindless and boring activity.
He needs the key to the power of his voice. His voice has a part to play in history that no one else can say for him. Like all of the people I passed on Independence Avenue that day, he needs to understand his value and know himself deeply so he can see how he relates to others. By looking deep within himself, he will be opened up to a vast array of topics that interest him, and not only interest him, but make him burn with passion. The great Greek writer, Plato, used the phrase “Know thyself” quite extensively in his works to make a point. It is only in helping our students to know themselves that they will ever find meaning and fulfillment in their writing.
Writing must not just come from the head -a tedious mix of verbs, nouns, and tenses. Rather it must come from the deep parts of the heart and spring into writing by the need the child feels to be heard, to make change, and to take on the world. Like all the business men and women, the entrepreneurs and politicians I passed, this student in front of you will also find his voice and his passion in the world if he is taught not only how to write, but at least equally importantly, why to write. So the next time Bobby is twirling his pencil and looking out the window:
1) Take a deep breath;
2) Look at that child and see in him or her an untapped well of passion waiting to be discovered;
3) Approach the subject of writing with a question that will help him or her reflect on his daily life;
4) Show him the wonders of creation and bring them to him in some way -either through a story or through something tangible so he can start to dream.
By encountering reality, we start to dream, and we paradoxically start to wake up to our part to play in the drama of life. As teachers we must cultivate this dream, this passion, and so teach ourstudents to find their voice and speak out through their writing to make it -and them- come alive. How do you approach that child who struggles to find meaning in his writing?