The Examined Life Makes Good Writers
By PAM DYCUS
Pam Dycus teaches seventh grade language arts at Villa Rica Middle School in Temple, Georgia where she has had several students receive accolades for their writing. She completed her graduate work from Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia and believes that community begins in the classroom.
Electronic communication can be both a blessing and a curse. Students are naturally drawn to new media sources but sadly many of them are without the basic skills necessary to express themselves appropriately. For middle school students, the problem is magnified by their hormonal emotions and the questions that arise in their minds concerning their own individuality. Student dependence upon texteze to express their inner feelings diminishes the importance of their opinions and garbles their meaning. Vocabulary that only addresses the surface attitude but not the value it holds to the community limits them in responsibly addressing issues of their community. Once a student realizes that how they communicate affects not only themselves but others around them they are open to seeking out and utilizing a more extensive vocabulary. Before students can appreciate the position of others they must first understand themselves and how they affect others. Leading students to self-discovery can be a slippery slope studded with juggernauts, some to be avoided such as a weak vocabulary, overuse of slang and assumptions, while enjoying the ride that a well-developed vocabulary can provide.
Discovering the inner voice is the essence of why we teach writing. Language arts teachers speak of “voice” as that part of writing and speaking that is yours alone. It is the part of communication that makes you unique and different. Most students struggle with this concept because they believe that to truly be themselves they should write as if they are sending a text message to their friends. (LOL) Reguritating the same garbled messages over the internet, instant messaging, emails and even into classroom writing, students continue slipshod over the same bumpy path without getting anywhere in their realization of true communication skills. Today’s students see the new text messaging shortcuts as real words that are acceptable because they see it everywhere. Everyone is using them. Do they have a place? Certainly they do; they belong on the cellphone not in the classroom. Students spend so much time with electronic media that few of them stop to examine what they are saying. The use texteze so much that it becomes more than a habit; it becomes a crutch that they are strained to throw away. Developing the inner voice of our students is paramount in today’s communication society. The ability to reach inside oneself and share that innermost part of who we are is difficult for adults but for teenagers journeying through self-discovery the task is daunting. As we mature, we are brought face-to-face with our weaknesses and our strengths. Life’s perils and promises teach us what we can accomplish and what we should avoid. For teenagers who have limited life experiences the self-discovery has little meaning and the development of their inner being can be hidden indefinitely. Today’s new teenage English does our youth an injustice; they have all the tools necessary to communicate with except the skill to create a meaningful thought.
One technique that I have used over the past few years to assist students over the hurdles of determining who they are is called “Life is a Highway”. The strategy begins by proving to students that they are writers. Writing is a part of who they are as human beings because it comes naturally from within them. The students are introduced to streaming consciousness. Stream of consciousness writing requires that students write every thought that enters their mind during a timed writing session. The things they write can be as miniscule as my nose itches, to some deep aching question that is weighing on their mind. The only requirement is that they write continually because their mind is constantly working. Many students begin with statements such as ”I have nothing to say” but by the end are usually spewing thoughts on a variety of subjects. The amazing part of the exercise is that students who don’t enjoy writing like the activity because it allows them to share their thoughts. They ask repeatedly to do the activity and to share their writing with other students. Students are then asked to chose one sentence from the exercise they determine to be most important. After examining all the meanderings, they evaluate one thought to be most important and then expound upon it in more detail and explain why it is most important. Students often find this part difficult because most of them have not been goaded into determining which aspect of their writing is most worth examination. By asking themselves what it is about a single thought that makes it worth developing ,they begin to make determinations about their own value system.
As an outgrowth of the streaming consciousness activity, I like to follow it up with an additional writing activity that chronicles their own life. I do this by sharing events of my own life which I consider to be important. Students are taught to draw a road and then placing the events of their lives chronologically along the road. The events, just as the streaming consciousness activity, should just be written down with little attention to exact dates, approximation of events is sufficient for the activity. Most students enjoy this activity and take the time to decorate their work with drawings and pictures. Then comes the hard part, students are directed to select three events from their highway which have had the biggest impact on their life. The student must be able to explain in detail how the event has changed their life. The culmination of the exercise is then to write an essay about their life complete with an explanation of the three most important events. Students learn that not all events in a story are important to the outcome and that they are in the process of writing their life story each day of their lives. An unexpected outcome of this exercise has been that students relish sharing their stories. By doing so, they learn that others have shared many of the same experiences they have shared and they are a part of something larger than themselves. It creates trust among the class members and an enhanced classroom experience. Students identify with their small classroom community and carry their thoughts home to share with their families.
Uncovering the events in their lives that brings them to any moment in time puts students on the road to determining who they are and to identifying with their communities. They no longer walk in darkness down the dark path to self-discovery and self-understanding, but shine a light on the reasons they are separate from the herd while still a productive member of the group. Students learn through self-examination that they are different, but still have something to share because others understand why they are the person they present.
Students become less dependent upon the socially acceptable “LOL” and embrace more complete thoughts that are expressive of who they are becoming. Once a students’ inner eye is opened they develop more effective writing techniques because they are more aware of why they are unique as well as why others have value. The old adage that loving oneself is essential to loving others is a precept to writing well. It is self-knowledge that directs students to open their voice and leave the slippery slope to take flight to higher ground on the wings of their inner voice.
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