Today I attended a workshop that focused on student writing.  At one point, the presenter talked about what a student means when he or she says, “I hate writing!” 

I’d like to give you that list and share with you some impromptu reflections:

When students say, “I hate writing,” what they’re really saying is:

1.  I don’t know where to begin. 

Staring at a blank white sheet of paper (or, more often these days, a blank computer screen) is a very daunting process.  Some students are not sure how to prioritize the ideas they have, select the strongest ones to open their paper, or how to tell the difference between gold and garbage.  The opposite problem is that other students have no ideas at all. 

Both ends of the spectrum can be equally intimidating.  The other issue is figuring out whether the student even knows how to structure the beginning of a story, essay, freewrite, or journal entry once they are set on which ideas to use.  It is also just as possible that the student doesn’t know the difference between the aforementioned types of writing. 

All of this makes knowing how to start a piece of formal writing a paralyzing prospect for some young writers.  No one enjoys beginning an activity that causes anxiety right out of the gate, so many of  students elect not to do it at all, having found themselves hamstrung from the get-go.

2.  I get bad grades on all my essays. 

As teachers, we are taught, and often preach, the concept of The Self-Fulfilling Prophesy.  If a student is told often enough that he or she is stupid or ugly or worthless, he or she begins to believe it.  But I wonder if we ever consider this concept in regard to handing back student papers.  Many students find themselves on the treadmill of receiving a successions of “Ds” on their essays and feel—accurately or inaccurately, is difficult to say—that none of their English teachers has helped them jump off the treadmill of substandard writing.  Their logic tells them, then, that they must be to blame.  Clearly, they are terrible writers and permanently and irredeemably unskilled in the written word. 

The truth is: the blame should probably be shared.  Teachers often don’t have (or maybe take) the time or energy to provide certain students with more than the “assembly line” instruction that is possible in a class of 38-40, but I also know that I’ve written SEE ME on essay after essay and my guess is that only 1 in 10 ever show up. 

3.  Everything I write sounds stupid. 

Everything I write sounds stupid, too. 
The first time. 
That’s why God invented revision.
This essay took 6 drafts.
4.  I don’t understand the prompt. 

One nugget of wisdom I took away from today’s workshop is that when English teachers give a class full of teenagers an essay prompt, we often assume that since they’ve written X number of essays in their high school career, they know how to deconstruct (break down) a prompt and address its various parts.  Not so. I will immediately be changing/addressing this approach in my own classroom.  I will no longer assume that my prompts are immediately clear.  I will invest the time in pointing out WHAT the prompt is asking and how to ORGANIZE its parts.  All BEFORE a single student puts pen to paper or finger to keyboard.  The presenter said she used to do this with her AP students, and my thought was, why doesn't EVERY student deserve that same consideration.  My hope is that improved clarity and direction will result in higher essay scores.

5.  I don’t know enough to write on this subject. 

Sadly, I cannot count the number of students who, while attempting to compose their recent essay on Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird, leaned in to me three days into the composition process and confided in hushed tones, “But, Mr. T., I didn’t read the book.”  This, unfortunately, is an epidemic problem and is responsible for the lion’s share of poor English grades.  In a Twitter world of 140 characters, writing 380 words about a book that clocks in at 281 pages might, for some students, seem harder than scaling Mount Everest.  But if you haven’t even read the book, you don’t have a chance.  I always tell my students that “you can’t write an essay on a book you didn’t read.”  I tell them this every time I hand them a new novel, hoping that I’m telling them this early enough in the process to make a difference.  I’m not.
Note:  One student e-mailed me and told me she was having trouble with her essay, despite the fact that it had been due the week before.  She said she hadn’t read the book, but that she had powered through it that weekend and had listened to our class discussions and was now ready to write.  She cranked out the essay and turned it in late.  What was the grade?  It doesn’t really matter because the bottom she turned in an essay that wasn’t going to come in. 

I was proud of her because, in my business, that’s a victory.

6.  I don’t want to think this hard.

Too bad.  You’re going to.

The bottom line is that the next time I start to talk about an essay and a student starts to groan and says, “I hate writing,” I’m going to spend a little more time looking at what, in my business, we call the “subtext” of what that student is really trying to say.

Not long before Winter Break, I was playing audio tapes of the novel OF MICE AND MEN for my Freshman on an old-fashioned looking turntable my wife had given me a few Christmases ago so I could play my old vinyl albums.

One of my students, seeing the turntable, points up by where I was standing and says, "What's that ancient-looking thing up there?"

To which I replied, "I work here."
Just for my own entertainment, I'm not going to explain what these websites actually do, but they were listed in the same Reader's Digest magazine referenced in the last blog entry in an article entitled "6 Time Wasting Internet Tips."  This is my favorite.  Didn't look at this one.  Or this one.  Every month I wonder where all my money goes; here's a partial answer.  If you think all US presidents are basically the same.  I couldn't get this one to work, but it sounds really cool.
Several months ago, Reader's Digest published an article called "Thirteen Things Your Child's Teacher Won't Tell You."  There were several more on the Reader's Digest website. 

With some minor adjustments for our purposes here, I felt many of them were worth passing on:

  • The students we remember are happy, respectful, and good-hearted, not necessarily the ones with the highest grades.
  • Please no more mugs, frames, candy, or stuffed animals. A gift card to Starbucks or Staples would be more than enough.  A thank-you note:  even better.
  • Please help us by turning off the texting feature on your child's cell phone during school hours.
  • We take on the role of mother, father, psychologist, friend, and adviser every day.  Plus, we're watching for learning disabilities, abuse or other issues at home, peer pressure, drug abuse, and bullying.
  • Kids dish on your secrets all the time--money, religion, politics, even Dad's recent surgery to insure no future offspring.
  • Your child may be the center of your universe, but I have to share mine with 180 others.
  • We're sick of standardized testing and having to "teach to the test.
  • I have parents who are CEOs of their own companies come in and tell me how to run my classroom. I would never think to go to their office and tell them how to do their jobs.
  • Teaching is a calling. There’s not a teacher alive who will say she went into this for the money.
  • We don’t arrive at school 10 minutes before your child does. And we don’t leave the minute they get back on the bus. Many of us put in extra hours before and after school.
  • We are not the enemy. Parents and teachers really are on the same side.
  • Encourage your child to keep reading. That’s key to success in the classroom at any age.
  • We can tell the difference between a parent helping their child with homework and doing it for them (especially when they’re clueless in class the next day).
  • Just because your child says he did his homework doesn’t mean it’s true. You must check. Every night.
  • We spend money out of our own pockets to buy things our students need, such as school supplies and even shoes.
  • Nobody says “the dog ate my homework” anymore, but we hear a lot of “I left it on the kitchen table.” And then Mom will send in a note to back up the story (or my printer was out of ink!).
  • We wish parents would make their kids own up to their actions instead of pressuring us to bend the rules.

Sources: American Federation of Teachers; interviews with elementary and middle school teachers in California, Connecticut, Georgia, Iowa, Minnesota, New York, and Texas.
It had to be the fourth time that period I'd told him to take his iPod earbuds out of his ears. Why couldn't he just listen to me? My expectations aren't that unreasonable, are they? I was just trying to enforce the school's NO ELECTRONIC DEVICES in class policy.

I was already worried about his progress in the class, though, and thought maybe he would have a better chance of succeeding if his ears weren't blocked by the pounding noise of Slipknot or Fitty Cent or the Jonas Brothers or whatever else the kids are listening to these days.

I caught his eye and nodded in his direction.

“Take out the earbuds, please,” I said. “This is the last time I'm going to tell you.”

He raised his eyebrows and his eyes widened in genuine surprise.

“I can't listen to my iPod?”

“No,” I said. “You can't.”

A look of innocent bewilderment flashed across his face.

“Why not?” he asked.

I walked over to the bulletin board and raised my finger toward the NO ELECTRONIC DEVICES poster that I'd pointed to at least seventy-two times since the school year began.

“It's against the school rules to—”

Removing the earbuds, he began to ball them into a heap of little white wires and stuffed them in his pocket.

“Oh, I know THAT.”

Exasperated, I sighed loudly.

“Then why did you ask me why not?”

“I don't know," he said, shrugging.  "Guess I wasn't thinking.”

My patience was now stretching as thin as a piece of salt water taffy on the Atlantic City boardwalk. 

"Well, then," I said, pausing for dramatic emphasis.  “THINK.”

He cracked a smile.

“I do not think about things that I do not think about.”

And that's when he knew he had me. I screwed up my face and thought briefly about what to say next.

He had just quoted Matthew Harrison Brady, a character from Inherit the Wind, a play that we had just finished in class as our most recent piece of English core literature.

The entire four weeks of the play a part of him had been listening; he's actually been paying attention to the goings-on in that sultry courtroom in Hillsboro, Tennessee in the summer of 1925.

I thought about asking him if he knew what an allusion was, but then decided against it.

“Nicely done,” I said, and turned back to the class.

This is an edited version of the one appearing on my Facebook page:

1. The Apple iPod is the machine I've waited for my whole life. I can put my entire CD collection on it and keep it in my pocket. As a bonus, I get to go around saying that there's music in my pants.

2. I spent two and a half years pursuing an acting career in Los Angeles.  I was able to do a number of things that I never would have been able to do otherwise and should never, ever do again.

3. I have always had an immutable impulse to communicate my ideas through writing.

4. But the deepest desire in my soul has always been to sing. Unfortunately, I cannot sing nor can I keep a beat, as I have the rhythm of a block of wood. So writing it is.

5. For a 3 year period, I owned a 1985 Honda Rebel, which was a model of a Harley-Davidson chopper. Not only did it get me through much of college, but I took trips on that motorcycle I'll remember the rest of my life. I miss that bike.

6. Pretty much anything is better when it's covered in melted cheese.

7. Of my three vices, soda is probably the worst.

8. I have written one terrible mystery novel, one good young adult novel, and one possibly publishable young adult novel.

9. I have also published a number of short poems in forgettable literary journals. Expecting any reaction from this is a bit like throwing a pebble into The Grand Canyon and waiting for the “plop.”

10. My first real job was at a pretzel place called “Twisteroos.” I ate free pretzels with melted cheese (see number 6) for years.

11. I consider every woman on the face of the earth a work of art and a gift from God. This philosophy sometimes causes me trouble.

12. Until I was much too old for it to be healthy, I was the biggest Barry Manilow fan on the planet. There, I said it. I hope you're happy.

13. I once worked at The Universal Amphitheater for seven months. This allowed me to see free concerts, hang out with stars, and enjoy numerous other perks of the Entertainment Industry. It was also one of the most soulless, evil places I've ever been.

14. I would love popcorn even if I didn't have amazingly fond memories of eating it with my whole family while we watched TV most nights of my life.

15. . When I was 10, I thought The Partridge Family was real.

16. I've never tried a recreational drug in my life. Reality is bizarre enough, why would you want to chemically alter it?

17. I've been an English teacher at West Hills High School for 16 years and I absolutely love what I do. I am grateful every day that I get to walk into my classroom.

18. But if I thought more about my students who show up hungry, abused, neglected/ignored, depressed, lacking sleep, etc., I'd have to quit my job.

19. I wish I were Batman who can do super things even though he's only human, but I'm more like The Incredible Hulk because I act like a monster when I'm angry.

20. Favorite actors: DeNiro, Pacino, Hoffman, Mantegna, Nicholson. Favorite Writers: Mamet, Shepard, Shakespeare. There are others of both.

21. The Beat Farmers will always be my favorite rock and roll band. Their first album Tales of the New West helped me survive the last twenty years. I'm also a lifelong fan of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, CCR, and Bob Dylan.

22. What I always called pacifism was, in large part, cowardice.

23. Tomorrow, I will want to change these.

24. I did 26 because I like to rebel—in small, subtle ways.

25. I have no regrets, but would a few “do-overs” really kill anybody, I ask you?

26. I expected things to be different.
My father, a retired businessman whose education never extended beyond high school, recently asked me to review a piece of writing he planned to publish on a website.  My father is a smart man, but I knew his writing skills might be rusty, so I feared his feelings could be hurt and I might appear overly-critical if I red-penciled too many of his words.  Nevertheless, I corrected grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors and also made a number of gentle edits and "suggestions" in clarity and structure.  After reading my critique, my father said, "This is great.  You improved the writing, but it still sounds like me!"  My father taught me that as a high school English teacher, I'd learned how to improve a piece of writing without sacrificing the writer's voice.  He reminded me that honoring the individual style while simultaneously addressing quality is one of the best ways to instill confidence in beginning writers.

Maintaining a positive attitude is one of the first steps in fostering confidence in beginning writers because constructive criticism can be positive as well as negative.  Emphasizing what's going well is as important as assessing areas for improvement, especially in early drafts.  On my students' papers, for example, I frequently place a star by a clever turn of phrase, an excellent word choice, or a particularly insightful piece of commentary.  This takes little effort, but the positive reinforcement tells the writer that specific areas have been successfully executed.  As teachers, we do not know how deeply our pupils internalize this praise and the benefit of that ripple effect is incalculable.  Beth, a former student who is now a teacher herself, recently e-mailed me to say that I was one of the first teachers to give her a sense of confidence in her writing and that I helped her become an "independent thinker."  I suspect I recognized her unique perspective on the world and nurtured her individual voice which, as her e-mail suggested, resulted in a positive classroom experience for her.

Another important technique in creating confidence while pushing students toward clarity and precision in their writing is to meet them at their current level of performance.  Earnestly wanting my students to improve their writing, I spent many years in the beginning of my career correcting every error I saw and making every suggestion I could think of.  While sincere, this approach often overwhelmed the student, and I eventually learned it wasn't the best avenue toward improvement.  I realized a much more effective approach was to ask myself, "What are the biggest issues preventing THIS piece of writing from being better?  What handful of corrections can the student handle--where he or she is right now--that will transfer to this piece of writing and move it to the next level of clarity?"  Next, I made edits, suggestions, or corrections based on those needs--typically asking for a revision and another draft to ensure the student was able to make the transfer from suggestion to implementation.  This proved more manageable for students and allowed them not only take ownership of their own writing skills, but to take control of the development OF those skills.  Once those initial roadblocks were eliminated, we were able to move to the next level.  This incremental approach to writing built confidence in the student while making concrete improvements.  The more I approached each student at his or her own level, the more success he or she found with each draft and each successive paper.

In seventeen years of teaching English (as well as two summer school sessions a year for the last ten years), I have read and marked over 19,000 student essays.  I've learned that whether it is a student sitting in a class of forty other writers or, quite possible, my own father, creating a non-judgmental atmosphere is imperative.  The beginning writer must feel comfortable experimenting, risking and, yes, even failing, without the fear that he or she will be humiliated in the process.
  • Yes, I have classes that tip the scales at over 40 students a period.
  • Yes, I told my 7th period that we should apply for Statehood.
  • Yes, due to a lack of supply, I am several desks short and some students are sitting in spare chairs, on the floor, on the counters and, at times, even at MY desk. 
  • Yes, due to budget cuts, we lost our duplicating clerk this year and yes, due to budget cuts, we lost our book clerk last year.
  • Yes, our receptionist and attendance ladies are killing themselves making up the slack in both the duplicating and book rooms.  They are saints.
  • Yes, due to budget cuts, the PAR (Peer Assistance Review) program, for whom I was a consulting teacher, was discontinued, resulting in a $4400/year reduction in my income.
  • Yes, hand sanitizers were installed in each classroom to assuage the paranoia surrounding the H1N1 virus (Swine Flu) giving my classroom a distinctly "Men's Room" feel.
  • Yes, if a student's hands are under the desk or in their pockets, chances are he or she is texting friends--often from row to row within the same class.
  • Yes, the PTSA had to beg for donations for their annual Supply Day just so I would have enough materials (paper, staplers, folders, etc) to make it through last year and the beginning of this year.  Thank you; you are the Santa's elves of education.
  • Yes, state-of-the-art projection systems and document cameras were in installed in every classroom last year--thank you local voters.
  • Yes, we just opened our brand new stadium, where people are congregating and enjoying themselves even as I write this.
  • Yes, there are plenty of other improvements that I'm probably completely unaware of.
  • Yes, the colleagues in my English Department are some of the smartest, most talented teachers I've ever had the privilege to work with (including those who should still be here).
  • Yes, I would include the rest of the faculty and staff in that assessment.
  • Yes, the park-like setting has made driving up to the campus a joy every day of the over 6,000 days I've taught here.  The recently replaced grass is a luxury we should never take for granted.
  • Yes, we have some of the most hard-working, motivated, and dedicated students I've ever seen.
  • Yes, I'm the only teacher who has taught in Room E-4 from the day it was built, a concrete detail of which I tremendously proud.
  • Yes, I will be attending a workshop next week where I will receive a new laptop that will assist me in teaching thanks to features I can only now dream about.
  • Yes, I go to bed every night feeling not only that I've made a contribution to my society, but that I have created a ripple effect in the future.

  • Yes, I will teach these children.  No matter what.  And there's nothing you can throw at me that will keep me from that purpose.
 For the past two years or so, I've been telling my students that if they learn nothing else before they walk  out the door of my classroom in June, that they should remember that two of the most important elements of good writing are precision and clarity. 

Precision refers to the idea of saying exactly what you mean.  This is largely due to vocabulary. But it's not so important to use the biggest word, I tell them, but to use the right word that communicates the specific message you are trying to send.  In fact, large or hard to understand words often interfere with our message and confuse or frustrate our readers.  Often in our attempts to sound "smart," we alienate our audience.  Consequently, I tell my students that each word they learn is a tool in your writer's toolbox, and that the more words they know (and can use accurately), the more successful they will be as writers. 

Clarity, on the other hand, refers to making your message as clear as it can possibly be.  This is achieved largely through having a logical structure for your piece and organizing your thoughts in a way that is clear to the reader.  It also is a function of sentence structure, clear and accurate punctuation, and often a well-written and specific thesis.  Once again, trying to impress the reader with overly-written or excessively flowery prose will just serve to annoy them (and, in this case, I say, the audience is your teacher and an annoyed teacher is less likely to give you the grade you'd prefer on that particular piece of writing.)

Whether you're writing your doctoral dissertation or a note to hang on the fridge telling mom you went to the 7-11 for a Cherry Slurpee, employing both precision and clarity will increase your chances of communicating your message effectively and, as a result, getting what you want. 

And isn't that what communicating is really all about?