A couple of years ago, I had the privilege of being on a school district’s committee that was reviewing textbooks to purchase for the upcoming year. Although I don’t teach full time anymore, I still guest teach writing, and I looked forward to being among others who shared my love of teaching.
As the school year came to an end, a small group of people was chosen from the committee to make the final decision and I was part of that group. We visited while waiting for our last meeting to begin, and I was happy when the instructional specialist from my daughter’s elementary school sat down next to me.
I didn’t know her very well, but had spent the first half of that week teaching writing in my daughter’s classroom and she had attended my class each day, taking notes on the lessons I was doing. Each day, she thanked me and told me she loved what I was doing, but we never had time to sit and visit. When she sat down next to me at the meeting, she commented on my work that week and told me what a wonderful job I was doing…then came the kicker.
She says, with a sad look on her face, “I would give anything for us to have time to teach that kind of writing.”
Now, I don’t ever advise judging people from a single comment, but I have heard this one so many times, that what was to follow was pretty predictable.
Innocently, I ask, “So, what kinds of writing do you teach?”
Pause: I must confess that there was really nothing innocent about my question. I asked it on purpose even though I already knew the answer, and I knew she wasn’t really sad about not having time to teach creative writing. In her case, it wasn’t really a guess because I knew how our district worked, what our elementary curriculum was, and had worked with several people in the building on this very topic. The thing is, sometimes people just don’t get it, and sometimes it is so much more than that. This lady happened to have a direct impact on both of my girls’ education, not to mention all of the other kids at that school. I just couldn’t let it go.
She responds, “Well, we teach essays and opinion pieces, how to write a business letter and how to write a report on a researched topic. You know, the kind of writing they will actually use when they grow up.”
And there you have it. Exactly what I predicted, except I got a bonus. The rest of the teachers at the table had a pause in their conversations and happened to look our way. The one sitting across from me had an opinion of her own. I smiled. Not because I hoped for support, but because I had heard this lady’s opinions before and had never seen her receive any respect from her peers at the table. I smiled because I was morbidly curious. (Look that up if you need to, it is a fabulous word!) She did not disappoint.
Genius says, “I can’t even imagine cramming that into my schedule when I think about all the stuff these kids actually need to know.”
Here, I actually did pause. I was completely offended on behalf of children everywhere that this woman was so limited in her ideas of what children, people, needed, and I didn’t want my passion and beliefs on writing to sound mean. So I tried to temper it with a question.
Me: “So, children don’t actually need to know how to write anything other than for the business world?”
Genius: “Well, it’s not like their all going to grow up to be authors. We have to teach them the skills they need to be able to get jobs and function as adults.”
Me: “So you’re teaching solely based on what they will grow up to be?”
Genius: “Of course I am. That’s what school is.”
Me: “So I assume you believe that you teach math to every single student because you believe every single student will grow up to be have a job using higher math, such as an accountant?”
(Yes, I fully admit that I was no longer being nice. This lady was an extreme case of misguidedness.)
Genius: “Well, no. That’s ridiculous.”
Me: “Then why do you teach math?”
Genius: Silent. And becoming greatly aware that everyone else at the table is also silent, watching her, and not jumping in to help her.
Me: “Maybe I can help. You teach math to every student because it is complex and you never know what parts of it will be helpful to any given child. You teach it because it is full of logic and teaches kids that there is an order to things and many times, order makes all the difference. And that when there is an unknown – and there is often an unknown – you have practiced the logic, problem solving skills, and understanding of order that will give you a greater chance at finding what it is you’re looking for.”
Genius: Still nothing. This actually makes me think she might be listening. Stranger things have happened.
Me: “I don’t teach creative writing because I think they will grow up to be authors, although I hope some of them will. I teach creative writing because nothing holds more possibility than a blank page. It gives children the opportunity to take all of the things they have learned about people and the world around them and create something that didn’t exist until their minds thought it and they put it on paper. It teaches them that life is exactly like a story. They each have a beginning, middle, and end, and the actions in them have events followed by logical consequences and outcomes. It gives them a chance to be something different, or try something new, and use everything they know to figure out how it will end or what will happen next. We read to be part of something we might not ever experience otherwise and we write for the same reason. Experiences make us human. Make us better humans.”
Genius never responded to what I said, but she didn’t look angry either. She looked curious and I guess for me, it looked like a start. I did however, feel better when the other teachers smiled and one even winked at me.
I have heard many statements like the one that teacher made over the years and I look forward to the day that more people realize the value of life experiences, including the ones being played out on a page. It scares me even to think how different our history and the world of science might be if people had not put importance on asking questions, creating scenarios in their minds and seeing what would happen. If you ever take the time to look through the writings of people who have affected our world – Aristotle, Thomas Jefferson, etc. – you might be able to come up with your own story about what our world would be like if they hadn’t put their thoughts to the page, if their minds hadn’t created things that didn’t exist until the moment they thought them.
It isn’t just scary. It is unthinkable.
You have the right to write. To be introduced and instructed on the art of taking the wonders in your mind, pulling them out, and setting them free to be something more than just a thought. If you have a teacher who is still trying to figure all of this out, stay tuned here. I’ll try to give you some advice and a good start.
Now while I’m all about reading, it’s time to stop now. Don’t you have a piece of paper to find and something new create?
P.S. If you are a teacher reading this and think this is a pipe dream, I want you to know that it is not. I taught in an underprivileged school in the Dallas area with over 90% free and reduced lunch students. We did not teach “to the test.” We taught them the curriculum and through that, over 90% of them passed the test in reading and math. In writing, we taught the forms they needed to know to pass the writing test and we taught creative writing right alongside it. Our students were as amazing as the teachers I was privileged to teach with. If you would like any ideas about how to make this work, feel free to contact me.