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Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Alternative Approaches to Writing Instruction

Is it possible to get kids to connect with the writing process in a way that gives them confidence and skills that stay with them?  Absolutely.  Can it be done within the existing public school structure?  It isn't getting done for the majority of students using the traditional teaching methods and, no matter how inspiring the teacher is, as long as we keep teaching to tests and segmenting skill sets into a seemingly unrelated string of exercises we are not honoring creativity and life-long learning.

Traditional English instruction is top-down: the teacher sets the standards, gives specific lessons and uses a rubric to measure the success of the student's writing product. What is a student's motivation for conforming to the established set of rules?  From my experience watching kids go through standard-issue U.S. education, the motivation is completely external to the student and what the assignment can teach him or her.  

Extrinsic reasons to write:
I have to please the teacher
I have to finish this quickly
I have to meet a deadline
I have to keep parents from nagging
I have to get a good grade

What if we gave the student more control and more responsibility for designing the project?  Instead of conforming to a one-size-fits-all set of rules, the student's role becomes one of ownership.  In fact the writing process in this scenario is a means to an end, which is the finished project.. For example, say the student chooses from a list of possible assignments to write and self-publish a book for younger students. Right there we see the biggest difference between the traditional and alternative approach: "I write because I want to," not "I write because I have to." The motivation is now internal, which means the student can become fully invested in the project and want to learn the skills to succeed.  Guidance, not rules, is what young writers need at this point.

Intrinsic reasons to write:
I want to learn how to write in this genre (children’s book, short story, persuasive essay)
I want to learn how to publish
I want learn about a topic of interest
I strive to write better
I feel  strongly about a topic
I want to communicate

These are big picture ideas, and my discussion of an alternative approach to writing instruction is far from complete. However, I know that learning is a personal, vital experience that cannot be drilled into anyone.  The desire to learn must come from within each of us, it must be nurtured in a safe and non-threatening learning environment, and it must be allowed time to grow.

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