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Archive for May, 2013

Writer’s Block

During my Education degree one afternoon a few years ago, my class and I watched a video that I think about (and re-watch) frequently. It’s a TED Talk, and it’s probably one of the most popular if not the most popular talk on the TED website. You’ve probably seen it, and if you haven’t, I think you should pause reading this and take some time to watch this video:

http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html

I have an academic crush on Sir Ken Robinson and I feel pretty certain that I’m not the only one. I own two of his books, and it’s easy to say that I consider this man somewhat of a role model as an educator. I have an Education degree that came from a program called “Artists in Community Education”, I’m reluctant about calling myself an artist, but exist among and associate with many talented artists. I’m an art advocate, so when I watched this TED Talk for the first time it’s not surprising that I sat there watching the video as goosebumps ran up my arms, completely enthralled by this man who was making me laugh with his witty humour, but also incredibly sad when I thought about the state of the arts in our schools.

But, at the time, I misunderstood the video and I didn’t realize this until a few weeks ago.

I  teach English to kids of different ages, and through this experience it dawned on me loud and clear that this video is not just about the arts. Granted, Ken (do you think he’d mind me calling him that?) might have specifically meant it to just be about the arts and typically, we associate creativity with the arts. But the understanding I now have of the idea that “schools kill creativity” is a much more encompassing term. As an educator,I think that ‘creativity’ means not being afraid to take risks, and not being afraid to think differently.  As Ken explained eloquently in his talk, this isn’t happening enough.

Kids are not pulling enough Susan Boyle moments:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JSDoPY9B0wQ

 

or taking the risks and chances Celia Gimenez did on this now, infamous painting.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-19349921

Now, granted, sometimes  risks work out for you and sometimes they don’t, hence the word “risk”, but they’re important none the less. The fact is kids aren’t taking enough of them within our school system, because they’re really afraid of “being wrong”, which can be one of the worst things you can be accused of when you’re a young student.

I guess this has been something of concern for me lately because of my challenges regarding students and writing. We’ve all heard the term “writing is a process” because, well it’s true, writing IS a process. I mean, I know that now because I’ve done a lot of writing, granted a lot of it wasn’t good, but I’ve learned that writing is something that takes time. I couldn’t tell you exactly when I learned that, but like most adults, you just know that you know it, and often can’t remember how. As an educator, that’s a real problem. My job is to try and take concepts that we as adults take for granted and try and make them accessible to people that have not yet learned them. Too many kids aren’t writing because they’re afraid to take risks, because they’re afraid that their writing won’t be perfect right off the bat, and they’re afraid their writing will be terrible, so many of them don’t try at all because then they can’t be wrong.

When it comes to writing I feel like you can break it down into a couple of categories:

-Writing you want to do

-Writing you have to do

and

-Writing that sounds stale and forced

-Writing that actually sounds like you

Obviously, the two categories are connected, and I would argue that if you’ve been through the schools system then you’ve definitely done the Writing that sounds stale and forced because you were (are) forcibly engaging in Writing that you have to do. As much as I always loved and enjoyed English throughout my years in the public education system, I couldn’t write an essay to save my life. There was something that always felt so unnatural about it that I couldn’t quite get my mind around, it never quite sounded like me. 

This may not sound like a big deal, but I’ll tell you why it is. It wasn’t until my first year of university that I discovered that I had a voice when it came to writing. That I could write something that sounded exactly the way I wanted it to, and that it felt very similar to something I would actually say. Again, that might sound really redundant, but most children right now are writing things that don’t sound anything like them and they’re uncomfortable with that, but they don’t know any other way, and in turn, many of them hate writing.

They hate writing because they don’t know how good it can be, how genuine it can feel, but I understand completely why many of them can’t stand to put a word down on the page. I believe it’s because we’re mixing two important aspects of writing:

-Content/Style/Ideas

-Grammar/Spelling/Formatting

Both are integral to good writing, because the Grammar/Spelling/Formatting portion allows people to understand the Content/Style/Ideas of a written piece.

The problem lies in our obsession with overly focusing on the Grammar/Spelling/Formatting section first because it actually instills a huge sense of fear and paralysis that keeps people from writing because they’re afraid they’re going to be wrong. Wrong, before they’ve put anything down on a piece of paper. To me, there are few things more heart breaking then watching the stress of a student sitting with a blank piece of paper in front of them, unable to write anything because they’re afraid I’m going to mark a big red x on it before they’ve even gotten a chance to get some kind of writer’s flow. The sad thing is that this trepidation affects students of all ages, and the fear is very real.

As I said earlier, I wasn’t aware a place existed where I could write as me, myself and I until University. I was so deeply fortunate to be apart of a life changing and unique academic experience where on the first day we were asked to write a paragraph. All 17 of us did,( including our three professors) and then an incredible thing happened, our professors asked us to exchange our writing with each other, okay…but here’s the really incredible part, they explicitly explained that they didn’t want us to correct each other’s work, but to actually comment on each other’s writing, i.e. tell them if you really liked the way they explained something, tell them if you agreed with what they said, or tell them why you might disagree with what they said. Essentially we were asked to have a conversation on paper with each other, and it is because of this experience among others that I feel I am more comfortable with writing. It’s wasn’t about the little red pen marks on my page, ticks where commas should have been, ? if they didn’t understand, or awk. if you couldn’t get your thoughts down in a more coherent way. I learned that when you know you have a reading audience of people you like and respect, people you actually want to write for (besides just one teacher), then you’ll take the time and care to want to be clear and coherent for them.

I struggle with how to recreate this kind of writing environment in my future classrooms. How can I take away the fear associated with writing and “being wrong” and replace it with taking risks and wanting to genuinely share thoughts with their peers? Furthermore, how can I explain this amazing process to people who don’t yet see the value in writing, not understanding why they have to write when they can just talk to each other vocally, in person?

I then remember this TED talk that has also deeply changed the way I think about writing:

http://www.ted.com/talks/roger_ebert_remaking_my_voice.html

I love this video because I remember the moment I found out that Roger Ebert had cancer and had undergone quite a dramatic visual transformation. I was reading through his blog when he made mention of his illness and someone on his blog made a comment about how different he had looked. At this point, I had no clue he had undergone anything and felt quite shocked when I saw a picture of him. I think the part that shocked me most was that if I hadn’t read that comment, I may never have known that Roger Ebert had lost his literal voice because his writing was so clear and beautiful. When watching this video, I am reminded of this moment I had because he talks about the relief he feels about being able to remain the same person he’s always been when he’s writing, and I don’t think we should take those words lightly.

Like Roger Ebert, if I were to lose my speaking voice right now, I feel self assured that I too would be able to feel like myself through the written word. I’m not belittling the experience, it would clearly be difficult, but when I think about all the kids that sit and look at that blank page on the verge of tears, I know that we’re doing something wrong, and based on the enlightening experiences I was fortunate to have, I know it can be different.

The question is how? How can I help my students express their “voice”, whether it be in person or in text? Let’s just say that like writing, it’s an ongoing process.

 

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