Towards Breathing New Life into Writing Practices in School Classrooms
By Rajashree Gandhi
On a field visit to a Delhi government school as part of a certificate program in teaching English last year, I observed a writing task being conducted in the English class. The students sincerely copied a passage from the blackboard, which the teacher had copied from a digest. I remembered my own school days as I watched this; surprisingly, though I went to a private, CBSE, English medium school in Nagpur, my experience of writing in an English class was only marginally different from this classroom. What does this relative lack of difference between our experiences (in spite of our vastly different contexts of) say about writing practices in schools, I wondered.
In this essay, I argue that the existing writing practices in schools have failed to equip students with the skills and confidence required to compose texts for personal, professional or academic expression. Students are taught to see and judge writing as a static product that they need to build alone, not as a dynamic process that requires collaboration with peers and mentors. Teachers place undue focus on surface errors while providing no real feedback on the choice and organization of their ideas and vocabulary. Further, an absence of compassion towards the young, struggling writers ensures that their journeys of articulation halt well before they begin.
A student entering a university for 2-7 years of study, has first gone through schooling for 10-12 years, which may or may not have prepared her for academic writing. An examination of writing practices in institutions of higher education cannot be initiated without a genuine inquiry into writing pedagogy at the school level. If university spaces do not take these factors into account, any support they offer to a struggling student might not start from a clear identification of the problem. My reflections are based on my schooling experiences, and on my experience as an educator of language skills and 21st century skills as well as a writer of both academic and creative texts. Schools, for the purpose of this essay, refer broadly to the kinds of school settings that I have had exposure to, viz. private English medium schools in non-metropolitan cities like Nagpur, Amravati or Ahmedabad, and an English medium government school in Delhi.
The Differing Purposes of Writing
Writing has multiple purposes, ranging from self-articulation and communication to argumentation and knowledge production. The key task within academic writing is the authoring of a text – a paper or a thesis, aimed at producing knowledge and advancing discourse. Originality is not only desired but it is imperative to academic writing. This purpose of writing in higher education is at loggerheads with the central purpose of writing in schools, which is primarily to assess the students’ knowledge of pre-taught concepts and to test retention of memory: a clear erasure of any expectation of originality. Digests and nibandh-malaas are ever popular products in the market, from where students reproduce texts in exams and assignments. Parents’ ‘help’ is also a source of the written word. While academic writing goes from known to unknown, writing at school sticks to the realm of the known, relying on archaic quotes and clichés. Students’ natural curiosity is hardly tapped into, and after years of spoon-feeding, they are suddenly required to come up with original research questions at the university.
Writing as a process vs. writing as a product
Writing tasks in the school classroom start with copying from the blackboard/textbook and end with exercises and sentence constructions. Even academically successful students, however debatable the definition of success is, are only adept at creating isolated sentences of similar kinds (Hedge, 2005). Composing longer texts is postponed into optional homework. It is ironic that teachers leave this writing of longer texts outside of the classroom, for homework and competitions, while expecting students to create coherent texts in the exams. In some cases, writing in bullet points becomes the norm even in exams, never giving an experience to students of developing their thoughts through well-constructed paragraphs. While reflecting on my childhood as well as my recurring nightmares, I realized that a large part of my (and maybe this is true for many others) fear of exams was actually the fear of writing. The experience of knowing the answer and yet being unable to put it down or to score on it is still not uncommon.
When schools do organize an essay competition or a story writing contest, they announce a topic and distribute blank sheets to be filled up and submitted. Sometimes, a choice between generic topics is offered: ‘If I were the Prime Minister’, ‘Save the Environment’, ‘Life in an Indian Village’. Such tasks are isolated writing incidents that do not bother with laying of contexts (why/for whom am I writing) and allotting time for thinking and preparing. There is no feedback or editing; only three “winners,” who never get to learn what exactly “worked” in their essay. When teachers collect student compositions, there is no discussion, only grading and marking. At school then, the focus on writing seems to be in the form of a single static product locked in good handwriting.
The worst part, however, about assigning such generic topics to school children is that they never learn to base their writing in their immediate experiences. They grow up thinking that their own life, and the lifeworld around them is not worth writing about (Calkins, 1986). As a child, I remember I was curious about saas-bahu serials on TV and about the possibility of goddesses menstruating. If I had been given a chance to explore my own curiosity instead of chasing template topics, my writing might have grown far more organically and passionately.
Tasks involving guided writing and process writing are hardly included in the school curriculum. Academic writing on the other hand is a long process that requires planning, where research and writing evolves gradually, moving along a sequence of thoughts (not necessarily linear), from a research topic to the writing of the research. The most important part of process writing is that of working through multiple drafts, through feedback from peers or teachers. This crucial process is utterly unfamiliar to the struggling school student. If our schools allowed for any version of process writing, however simple, minimalistic and suitable for student age and cognitive levels; it would have given students a more autonomous, yet collaborative writing experience.
When school students are required to write longer essays largely as part of their homework, they miss out on a whole lot of learning that could have happened during the writing process, with an encouraging teacher and supportive friends, if it was done in class. To this date, as I work on any creative writing project, it becomes extremely tough to accept writing as a process that requires patience. This is similar to many of my writer friends. The school child in me, which has internalized a product-centered approach to writing, gets busy judging and self-censoring. If basic skills such as recording my ideas and stray thoughts into journals and developing them into a first draft could have been taught to me in school, I might have understood far earlier that good writing is often painfully built, by carefully gathering rich material and giving it shape.
Giving and Receiving Feedback as a Key to Learning Writing
The process of writing is enabled to a large extent by the kind of feedback that the learner/writer gets. In the context of Indian school classrooms, the school teacher’s red pen is crueler than a sword. She hands out home assignments for which students sit with their thoughts and string together word after word with a lot of courage. Instead of evidence of the teacher’s curiosity and active reading, they receive a set of red circles and scribbles, all pointing at error after error: of spelling, punctuation, and grammar. It is a miracle that a few children sustain the motivation to write after this experience.
Rarely have we come across teachers who reward or comment on the quality, coherence, organization of ideas; the range of vocabulary and sentence structures; the appropriate tone or the usage of literary and linking devices. The criteria for good writing is either not deliberated upon, or it is automatically understood to be about correcting language errors.
To illustrate this, I want to share a memory from a writing workshop I conducted at an English medium school in Amravati, a city located in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra. The class 7 students, first generation learners of English, seemed to be inclined towards science and maths. Writing as an active process was new for them. The workshop was intentionally left untitled, so that the title could be sourced from the students on the first day. Each one of them suggested a title, and we voted for the best one. ‘Write to Live, Live to Write’ created by a quiet, enthusiastic student, won the majority. Right from the start, the aim was to create a space for autonomous learners who are beginning to take ownership of their own topics and writing processes.
One of the sessions encouraged students to write one question and one opinion they hold about the society on two chits. The chits were then shuffled, and the students were supposed to expand on their own question/opinion or respond to someone else’s. I am reproducing the content of some of the chits here without changes:
Why does people have diffrent perspective, names and why they are diffrent from each other?
Why after independence also servents are there?
Why people discriminate, between girls and boys, as girls only give birth to boys?
Why people get depressed and do suicides?
I don’t belive in Alians as there are no proof that Alians exists.
I do not believe in perform the complicated rituals and sacrifices as by my perspective it is a loss of money.
Friends should not be frod, they should be equal, loyal.
My opinion about child labour is that, children are the form of Gods so how can we rule on them and how can we adopt them for our work?
I cannot imagine the loss in teaching-learning potential, had I focused on correcting their spellings and grammar. When I read their thoughts with curiosity, their eyes widened. They felt heard. I congratulated the boy who wrote, ‘Friends should not be frod, they should be equal, loyal’ for the soft, courageous and philosophical assertion behind the spelling errors. I felt empathy for the experience that led him to this thought. I also couldn’t help but empathize with many of them who were articulating sincerely their thoughts on aliens, gods and governments.
Appreciation, a crucial part of giving feedback, is an art in itself. When I used specific words like “sharp,” “witty,” “charming,” “revealing,” “beautiful” – instead of nice and good to describe their writing – not only did they learn why exactly their writing was worth working on, they learned to use these words while giving each other feedback. In another workshop, at a small learning centre in Nagpur, students came from various private schools. When a boy lovingly described his mother as a hardworking spider, or a girl wrote ‘boys are allowed to do everything, except belly dancing’ I had no other reaction than giving applause.
Back in Amravati, in an exercise where students looked at portrait photographs to create new fictional characters, a boy refused to sit and write. When I engaged him in a casual conversation, he said that the character in the photograph looks like she has been orphaned at a young age. His ‘sincere’ classmates couldn’t have thought this way. This imaginative student, who I later found out did not like to sit in one place, was surprised when I told him how much I learned from him, to look beyond what is obvious. Inspired, he didn’t sit, but took his journal near a window to write all of it down. Offering space and trust to students of various learning styles makes them feel welcome to try, fail or keep trying.
In such an environment, suggestions for improvement are not points of criticism, but gifts that we give each other. When I said “You’re doing so well, here’s another tip…” the student was already taking notes in the margin. The freedom to act on suggestions allowed the editing process to be as creative as that of drafting. I saw young students carefully choosing and replacing words like ‘big’ with ‘vast’ or ‘different’ with ‘various’. I witnessed the peer-editors taking responsibility of improving the piece. For their home assignments, I used a pencil or a violet pen to underline phrases and lines that were fresh and appropriate. I spelled out my suggestions at the back of the composition not on top of it. The next day, a shy child ran up to me to show how she has incorporated my feedback. It is frustrating for children to erase and rewrite till the page tears, but having peers and mentors who are eager to read multiple drafts and offer compassionate advice pushes them to keep trying.
Towards nurturing writing in schools
The question “Can you even teach writing?” continues to be asked. This question either arises from a distrust in pedagogical progress or from an arrogant belief that writing is something we either have it in us or don’t. Those of us who believe in a growth mindset know that writing can be learned through practice, and that nurturing a young writer’s confidence will motivate them to work through the process of writing with patience and grit. Hence, we continue to hope for the creation of nourishing, non-judgmental, student-centered spaces to learn writing – at school, college and university levels.
Image credit: Here
Rajashree Gandhi is a writer and educator with an M.A. in Media and Cultural Studies from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. She has worked in the fields of 21st century experiential learning and qualitative research. Recently, she has completed the Certificate programme in Teaching English to Speakers of Indian Languages from Ambedkar University, Delhi. She conducts writing workshops for children and young adults.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.