I perused a top-ten list of peoples’ fears recently, and the usual suspects popped up — snakes, spiders, heights and visiting the dentist. Public speaking is right up there, too. I guess picturing fellow Rotarians in their underwear during the big luncheon speech doesn’t prevent the flop sweat from dripping down one’s forehead.
But experience has taught me that I don’t need a cage full of tarantulas to clear a room. I simply have to ask adults to write.
My colleague, Jess Marrone, and I have led Family Writing Nights in Hampstead for four years now. Many of our students come and bring their parents — and sometimes even grandparents — with them. The kids get right down to business, happy to get their thoughts on paper. And lots of them are willing and eager to share their work publicly.
Most of the adults hem and haw for a few minutes, or shift nervously in their seats before even picking up a pencil. Some choose not to participate at all. It’s not until several children write and then share that a few adults can muster the courage to do the same.
Writing is mental striptease. It’s intellectually revealing and therefore risky. But it doesn’t have to be a paralyzing endeavor.
I blame well intentioned but tradition-bound teachers, who consider the writing process to be nothing more than following a formula, like an “artist” who paints a landscape by following the numbers.
The finished product is neat and tidy, but devoid of any individuality. A robot could have put the pieces together on an assembly line.
And then the assignment is returned to the student dressed in red, dramatically expressing what is wrong, but little if any mention of what is right.
It’s no wonder so many adults fear writing. It was either a tedious chore they had to suffer in school, or a punishment of choice for those who broke the rules. Too often it was both.
Jess Marrone and I, and a handful of other Hampstead teachers, believe students need to write every day in every class. They need to write about what interests them, and they need feedback from their teacher that is timely, specific, and encouraging, not punitive.
For years now, I’ve had incoming sixth-graders — mostly boys — tell me how much they hate to write. By the end of the year, many of them ask me, “Please, Mr. Ed, can we have just five more minutes to write, pretty please?”
I’d love it if some of my students grow up to be journalists, novelists, or poets. But I’d be just as satisfied to learn that an accountant gained the confidence to pen a pithy letter-to-the-editor, or a chemist emailed their representative in Washington about an issue they truly care about.
Writing well is hard work, but with practice and encouragement it can be a joy. No one should ever be afraid to commit his or her thoughts to paper.
John Edmondson is a teacher in Hampstead.