What Are You So Afraid Of?

My take on writing after reading the text The 9 Rights of Every Writer, by Vicki Spandel

I find myself asking my students this question frequently in my classroom. I have been teaching in classrooms since 2004, in Derby Public Schools, Stamford Public Schools, and most recently Trumbull Public Schools. This question has followed me around. I have come to the following conclusion: my students are afraid to write because they have trouble establishing the proper voice. When it comes to vocalizing language, we begin to learn that there are different occasions for the appropriate delivery of our vernacular. We learn there are formal and informal moments in our lives. What we say to our parents or other professionals is different from what we say to our friends. This natural progression is something that many students (elementary, secondary, and collegiate) struggle to incorporate into their writing. Upon reflecting on my own instruction and my own education, I believe that a majority of the blame for this struggle needs to be placed on the methods of how writing is taught in school.

In the text, The 9 Rights of Every Writer by Vicki Spandel, the author lays out her philosophical beliefs on the way writing should be taught in schools. She points out many of the faults that exist in the traditional methodology of analytical writing. In chapter three, she outlines the third “right of Every Writer,” which is “The Right to Go ‘Off Topic.’” I was drawn to one question in particular that she posed: “Why don’t students put more voice into their writing?” As I read I took a moment to pause and think about the means by which I try to teach voice. To me, voice is all about authenticity. If a student is not passionate about the topic they are writing about, then the voice of the essay or piece of writing will be detached. I found it witty that when I started reading again, Spandel answered her own question with another one, “Why don’t caged animals run more?” Her question is poignant and points out one of the flaws that are present in many school systems and teacher’s classrooms (mine included). Too frequently, we as teachers give the student the topic or prompt them with a question that limits the scope of their writing. This idea runs contrary to what Spandel is pointing out. By restricting the scope of what they can write about we are essentially asking them to “borrow a voice for any topic in the world.”

It seems like such a simple idea: empower our students. Spandel states that we as teachers often arrogantly think that we can come up with a better topic than our students are capable of creating. Why not, right? We are the ones who are educated. We have read the texts numerous times, so we must know what the best ideas to write about are, right? Spandel explains if our students are bound by fear then their voice will never completely materialize. She states, “Writers who write about what matters to them write with a natural voice.” This concept makes sense. As a writer they will explore more, inquire more, and be more inclined to write authentically. If a student feels that their written voice is important, then they will choose topics that they feel passionately about when choosing topics to write about.

A big piece to this puzzle is how we grade and evaluate our students. In Spandel’s model, rights 7 (The Right to be Assessed Well) and 8 (The Right to Go Beyond Formula) discuss how the assessment “is the result of clear vision and thoughtful planning” by the teacher. When this is fostered correctly students will begin to break the mold and tweak the formula. Spandel expressed this beautifully in a cooking analogy. Her mother used to tell her that “to be a good cook, you had to like to eat.” Interestingly enough this analogy speaks directly to me. I have read countless essays that I just did not want to read. I knew from the conception of the assignment that the essays were not going to be the most interesting pieces I could ask for, but I assigned them nonetheless. I like to think that my intentions were noble. I wanted to prepare them to write solid formulaic analytical essays. Spandel explains that we as teachers can get past this point by getting them to write authentic analytical essays by making them comfortable enough to “persist through three pages of random thought to an emerging clarity on page four because they have no shred of doubt that they will get there.” In this case creating a comfort zone in your classroom is very important. In the 5th Right (The Right to Write Badly) students need to know that they can struggle. After all, that is what original thought is – a struggle. When we think about craft and how we sculpt our ideas we are struggling with our thoughts. Students need to be comfortable enough to struggle.

Students must also be prepared to reflect properly. If they are not holding onto their writing and reflecting authentically on their growth, then they will remain stagnant. To be a good writer you must be a good reader. This includes the ability for them to read their own writing samples from the past. Spandel states, “Confidence also comes from seeing yourself grow as a writer.” What really spoke to me about reflection is that students would be able to see their growth if they are invested in the process. When students can compare two essays that they were truly passionate about they will be able to see their own measured growth. As Spandel states, “Students should know what we want, what we are hoping for, what we value.” I think I have begun to redefine what it is that I want. During class discussions I want them to be authentic and autonomous thinkers. I let them do it in a variety of manners. I think that when it came to teaching writing before I read this text I wanted them to write with clarity, intent, consistent voice, and proper mechanics. After reading this text, I feel that I have failed my students in many facets regarding writing.

I have been overly critical of their voice. At times I have probably stifled them too much. Many of my assignments from their conception have been too restrictive. One of my biggest realizations is that I too frequently have served as an editor after they have “published.” These realizations are exciting because I feel that I can implement change in my classroom that will foster student learning and autonomy. We as teachers have to look at writing differently. Students need freedom to express their ideas and the rest will elevate itself from there. Like Spandel unfolded in her text, I will need to “tweak the recipe” regarding writing in my classroom. I need to trust my students to learn from the process of creating ideas, defining their voice, reflecting on their accomplishments, and then refining their writing. I ask myself the question that served as my muse in the beginning, what are you so afraid of?

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