If you ask me what the most important aspect of language arts is, I'll tell you writing every time. Don't get me wrong: I am madly in love with reading, but I firmly believe that writing saves lives. It saves us from ourselves and connects us to those we might not otherwise find. I share my past writings with my students and I write with them (projected on the screen) so they know we're in this together.
One of the most important parts of this is being vulnerable. I share writing with my students that puts me in a vulnerable position. I share with them an essay I wrote about my struggles with weight throughout my life, and how my 80+ pound weight gain and loss has impacted my body image. I share with them essays ruminating on my strained relationship with my parents and my childhood. I share narratives confessing the times throughout my life when I've been a terrible friend to those who needed me. I share my life with them through writing because I'm asking them to do the same. You can't demand real writing from teenagers without being willing to put yourself out there, too.
Some students need this. They love my class because I encourage them to write about the hard stuff, the topics they usually try their hardest to conceal. Some students hate it because they will not lower their guard no matter how much I lower mine. That's fine. I reach the ones who need me at the right time, and I still try my hardest to work on the others who need more time.
I hear from a few former students every year who tell me they miss being able to write about the things I allowed them to write about. That gives me mixed feelings. Pride, because I've created that lasting connection with writing and provided them with an encouraging environment for free expression. Sadness, because they're not still doing that kind of writing. I encourage them to write for themselves regardless of what kind of academic writing they're doing in school. I hope they rekindle that love with writing sometime in their personal lives as they get older.
Jordan is a former student who is now a sophomore in high school (I've written about her here before). She became a writing addict in 8th grade after a rocky start the year before. Jordan was typical of a lot of strong writers I see in school: she knew how to write well, but it was more of a math equation than playing with words. Her sentences and paragraphs were perfectly constructed and formal. They could have been written by a computer. They had no personal voice. This is what we do to our young writers in a standardized era: we teach them that correct grammar and usage equals "good" writing. That the best thing you can be is technically proficient. I don't know a single person who enjoys reading writing that is simply correct. We connect with voice, and that quality beats any other aspect of writing every time, if you ask me. Jordan found her voice in eighth grade because I shared my hopes and weaknesses with her class, and she let down her guard and shared hers with me. And man, this kid had a lot to say. It was a pleasure to watch her grow and develop as a writer.
Fast forward two years. Jordan sent me a narrative she wrote about the man who raised her. She had to get it off her chest, but she was scared to turn it in because it dealt with some taboo topics and she wasn't sure her teacher would be cool with it. I read it and gave her my immediate feedback: she had to turn this in. She did, and earned an "A" for it. I told her about Teen Ink and she decided to take a chance and submit it.
She was published this week. I've you've taken the time to read this blog, then please take the extra step and read her piece, "Rolling Cigarettes," at TeenInk.com. It was picked as an editor's choice. I know she'd love feedback from as many people as possible, so if you have any kind words for a brave young woman, please share them here or on the Teen Ink website. A voice like her needs as much encouragement as possible.
I teach 7th and 8th grade English in rural Iowa and hope to reflect, connect, and share with other English teachers. Iowa Council of Teachers of English Executive Board member. Iowa Writing Project superfan. UNI MA:TESS graduate.