stephanie jones

How and why do we learn to write?

In creativity, critical literacy, Education Policy on October 3, 2012 at 3:02 pm

Now that the Common Core Standards includes writing, people all over the country are scurrying around to knock down the cobwebs of good writing instruction from years past in an effort to be in compliance with new requirements. Of course we should have been focusing on writing in schools all along during the torturous decade when phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension (sponsored by The National Reading Panel and No Child Left Behind) high-jacked literacy in every school across America.

All good educators knew the policies of NCLB and the practices of the NRP were too narrow and potentially disastrous. But it is the rare school (and school leader) where one can find a persistent push through the BS mandates passed by legislators and accompanied by pendulum swings and money-making products. Writing instruction managed to maintain a central role in some schools, hanging on by a thread and endangered by any drop in test scores, but in others it was pushed aside without another thought.

The good news is that writing has been deemed important again by the all powerful legislators. The bad news is that educators, children, and youth all over the country are caught up in another swirling whirlwind of curricular and instructional changes as the Common Core is “rolled out” across states, districts, and individual schools.

What I’m most worried about, however, is that old debates about how and why writing should be taught will re-emerge and distract us from the important work of figuring out what kids already do and know, and build on that foundation to make them the most capable writers possible who can shift between critical essays, engaging fiction, compelling expository texts, persuasive pieces, and writing that is used for many different personal purposes.

I’m worried that writing “to” the standards will result in standardized writing – the boring formulaic, disengaged writing that no one wants to read. Enough to meet the minimum requirements, and not enough to compel anyone to read.

I’m worried that we will forget why people want to write to begin with, and that motivation for grades or rubric scores will trump the real-life motivations for writing that students always have: teaching others what they know, telling others about their perspective, communicating with and about the broader world, and exploring their personal experiences and social analysis through creative modes that make living more fulfilling.

I’m worried that, once again, the “audience” for student writing will be the teacher with the rubric and the (not red) ink pen that gets the final word.

I’m worried that writing will be simplified: conventions over creativity; or creativity over conventions; or formulaic writing over free-writes; or, or, or, or.

Writing is broad and deep and complex and multilayered. Writing is about spelling and grammar and punctuation and creative selection of words and use of metaphor and analogy and symbolism; writing is about taking a stand, writing on the bias, research and inquiry, making things matter; writing is about personal exploration and political analysis and personal communication and crafting public policy; writing is all these things and more – and that cannot fit in a standard, in one approach, in one series of lessons, or in one program.

If we make students, their interests and their voices matter in schools, then we can open up the gates of motivation for writing. And we will have to teach them everything just as we will have to be willing to learn from them as they show us some tricks and techniques of their own.

If we make the desires of “future employers” the focus of our work rather than the students in front of us, we will fail from the beginning.


  1. I love this blog. I just wish you had share buttons at the bottom for Facebook and Twitter!

    • Thanks for reading, and thanks for the nudge to add share buttons! I’ve been meaning to do that for awhile…

  2. I am having a wonderful time exploring academic writing with my college students, and I can’t wait to get back to work with elementary school writers as well. We have such a great opportunity to push our students into authentic writing situations that allow them to pursue their passions AND perfect subject-verb agreement.
    Let the games begin.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: