Friday, May 25, 2007


Since Jack Army posted my thoughts on his blog and asked for more, I thought I would oblige. Here are more thoughts on writing and my life as a teacher.

Besides thinking of your audience, you must also consider your purpose. I’m not talking about what is taught in books - essays of persuasion, compare and contrast, descriptive, etc. I’m talking about “what the heck are you writing for.” I used to explain to my students that they needed to understand why they were writing and what they wanted to get from their writing. They could be writing in their personal journals to sound off, record their life or they might be writing a letter to a friend just to converse and share info about their life, etc. Most of the time in public school, they were writing to get a good grade or pass a test. If that was the case, then their audience was probably going to be a teacher of some sort or other academic personnel. More than likely, this person would not care what the student's opinion was, but was looking at how well they expressed that opinion. To get the grade or pass the test, those written opinions needed to be clear and reasonable. They needed to be orderly - topic sentence and supporting sentences/ideas and conclusion. When given a choice between topics to write on, I tried to teach my students to choose the one they could write the most on - had the most thoughts on. When given one topic and choice between pro and con, choose the one they could make the best arguments for, and remember your audience. Unfortunately, students had a difficult time with this.

I often gave this simple assignment: Write a short essay (or paragraph) on “Should students be allowed to chew gum in school?” Nine out of ten times, the students would choose pro gum chewing and then have no real reason for their opinion other than “because I like it”. Wrong! You get a bad grade because you had no intelligent thought process and did not support your opinion with well written sentences. I tried to explain to students that this little essay was not going to change school rules - no one really cared what they thought of gum chewing. The purpose was to prove how well they wrote. Plus, if a teacher or academic person was grading this, they might need to consider his or her opinion and write accordingly - if you want the good grade. Still, it was difficult for them to write if it did not come from their heart.

Here is another example to prove the importance of audience and purpose. I took four girls (freshman, sophomore, junior and senior) to the Language Arts Contest at Highlands University in northern NM and entered them in the writing contest. They were given a choice between two topics. I can’t remember what one topic was, but the other topic had to do with the importance academics versus extra-curricular activities. Three of the four girls chose the topic that I cannot remember and all placed in the top three writers of their age categories (one girl even won a scholarship). The fourth girl was just as smart and could write just as well, but she was also a cheerleader, and she chose to write pro extra-curricular activities. She did not place at all. Hmm, what was the real purpose - to win the contest. Who was the audience - college professors who thought academics were all important. Chances are this little girl should have won a prize for her writing ability, but she forgot to consider her purpose and her audience.

Is this a life lesson? Sure. In our every day life we should choose our battles (consider our purpose) wisely. Are we writing or speaking to win friends and influence people or are we trying to piss someone off? Those last three words of that sentence could offend someone, but yet, they were the words that said my message best. It was my choice.


Buck Pennington said...

Ahhh... a topic near and dear to my heart. Another way to teach writing, believe it or not, is through forensics (speech) classes. A lot of what I learned about writing I picked up in my high school debate classes/tournaments. Same principles: organization, clarity, purpose, and audience.

Second point: I was always amazed... first in the USAF, and later in business, at the sheer numbers of people who cannot write. Period. TSMP (also an English teacher) and I got into serious and prolonged debates over the years about whether or not writing can actually be taught...or if it's a talent. We never resolved that question, and we both switched sides occasionally, too.

Bag Blog said...

It is much like art. The basic skills can be taught, but there are just some who are gifted and some who are not. I think it has to do with how your brain works - right brain/left brain. It does make for a good debate. Lots of my knowledge of writing also came from speech classes. In fact, I can't think of any good writing teachers that I had.

Buck Pennington said...

It is much like art. The basic skills can be taught, but there are just some who are gifted and some who are not.

And that's the conclusion we (TSMP and I) eventually came to. But that didn't stop us from "discussing" it! ;-)