Writing Health

When I was in elementary school, I was the daydreaming, clumsy sort of kid who always got chosen last in “choose up sides” before a game in Gym. Team sports in gym class were a nightmare. I had gym teachers who tried to bully me into being athletic in ways I was not comfortable with right up through high school. One day I was feeling really gross, so I told my elementary school coach that I didn’t feel like I could play that day and asked to go the to the clinic. She told me I was faking being sick because I was lazy and wanted to get out of gym. I puked at her feet. She sent me to the nurse. I generally loathe throwing up, but I have to admit that one was kind of satisfying.

In order to become a relatively fit adult, I had to overcome my childhood gym class experiences and find forms of exercise that worked for me.

My wife has a lovely singing voice, but once when she was very young, her family visited a church that made her join a group of little kids at the front of the sanctuary to sing “Away in a Manger” at Christmas time. No one was singing but my then-four-year-old wife. They stuck the microphone under her face so that she was instantly performing a solo. She has not sung solo in public since – not even as an accomplished actress in local theater.

I was almost an Art major in college. That is, until one of my freshman year professors ridiculed one of my first art projects in front of the class. I left class and changed my major to English. Obviously, since I have spent 22 years drawing comic strips, this professor didn’t stop me drawing – but who knows how my art might have developed in other interesting ways if I’d stuck with it?

Why am I telling you these stories? Because they all have in common something that I hope I have never done or will ever do to a student: make them so hate my subject that they avoid it.

I have a friend who told me that her high school English teacher had the quote “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here” over her door as you entered. That was because she was on a mission to “improve” students’ writing by making every paper bleed red ink and by being hyper-critical. My friend left the class not feeling empowered and competent, but feeling paranoid about her writing and reluctant to share any of it publicly. Another friend was once told, in her second grade writing class, to write a story about visiting a farm. My friend had never been to a farm or read much about them or even seen them on TV. She cried. She felt pressured. She felt incompetent. To this day, she doesn’t particularly like to write, or to share her writing publicly. She can do it – she just doesn’t like to.

I sometimes like to think about my teaching through different lenses. One of the most useful lenses for me has been to look at a through a health lens. What does healthy literacy look like? What does a healthy reading life look like? And, of most concern to us in this Moving Writers space, what does Writing Health look like? More importantly, how do school systems, schools, and individual teachers either promote or damage writing health?

When I was first developing this idea I had questions, but before I could begin to answer them, I needed to define Writing Health. Keep in mind that the chart below is a bit to simplistic for my liking, and is really a kind of broad-strokes thought experiment. It is open to revision. Try writing one yourself. You might gain some insights about what your aims actually are with your students. That said, here are my writing-health categories:

Non-WriterCompliant WriterHealthy Writer
Avoids writing whenever possible, or writes as little as possible. Writes large, writes slowly. Sometimes plagiarizes. Takes no pleasure in writing. Writes without much thought to organization, elaboration, audience, or voice. When actually settling down to write, may resemble a compliant writer. Feels voiceless – they have nothing to say. Does not see the purpose of writing, except as something the teacher wants you to do.Writes because they have to say something, never because they have something to say. Will write when told do so for class. Writes to a “passing” level on writing tests or assignments but seldom if ever really engages with writing. Follows teachers’ instructions to get a grade rather than actually thinking about writing. Thinks writing is about following rules. Cannot name a favorite author they emulate. Writing is a “school thing.” May not see the purpose of writing. Seldom or never writes outside of class. Writes because they have something to say, even when they’re just writing because they have to say something – they make assignments their own. Writes for the sake of writing, and because of that, gets better grades. Writes outside of school. Reads a lot, so they have great models of writing to emulate; has favorite authors. Is interested in the world and has things to say. Cares about people, society, and the world. Is observant. Instead of following rote rules about writing, is aware of an array of writer’s tools and uses them intelligently. Understands that writing is about making choices. Understands that writing has many purposes, including helping you understand yourself and the world around you better so you can lead a better life.  
Understands that writers question, think, and challenge conventional wisdom.

Of course, sometimes healthy writing can even get out of hand…

As can unhealthy writing…

Obviously, there could be more nuance on my chart, but you have probably added that yourself. Some students are somewhere between non-writers and compliant and some between compliant and healthy. For some students it depends on the day or on the assignment. They thrive when given autonomy and withdraw and stop writing when faced with a prompt that disagrees with them (Write about a visit to a farm!). Nonetheless, I think it’s worth thinking about these descriptions. How did these students come to be the way they are, no matter what level they spend the most time on?

I’d like to suggest a few things that detract from students’ writing health, and then some things that contribute to it.

Things that decrease writing health:

  • Strict formatting rules and formulaic writing that discourages thinking
  • Stifling student voice
  • Always using prompts instead of letting students choose and focus topics
  • A culture where all writing “for teacher”
  • Being forced to share publicly when you don’t want to
  • Being single out as a poor example
  • Being hyper-criticized
  • Being micromanaged
  • Being told there is only one right way to write
  • Over-reliance on rubrics and compliance

Things that increase writing health

  • Encouraging playfulness in writing – even in formal writing
  • Encouraging students to find their own topics
  • Encouraging students to think more about what works, less about what is the one right way to write
  • Encouraging students to think about writing as a series of choices they make rather than a series of instructions they follow
  • Encouraging students to work from a “content dictates form” philosophy rather than a “please the teacher” philosophy

I and other writers here at Moving Writers and elsewhere have talked about these ideas in the past. But putting them under the metaphor of writing health yields new insights. Instead of simply thinking about whether students are writing the way we want, we think about them as people who have a relationship to writing as an activity – a relationship that can be damaged or invested in by what we do in class.

I also want to point out that the idea of writing health isn’t all “soft” – all warm and fuzzy. It’s not a way to say anything students write is okay, as long as they like writing and feel good about it. That is not what I’m saying at all. Students with writing health like to write, but writing matters to them enough that they are willing to struggle and work to improve it and make sure their ideas are clear to their audience. A student who loves writing but is not able to tell when writing needs work and work to improve it is not yet healthy. Unhealthy writers don’t care enough about their writing to fix it – or even to write in the first place.

Full disclosure: I have students sitting in my class every day this year who are obviously unhealthy in their literacy, particularly in their writing. I have not discovered the secret to engaging every student. Some of them have obviously had a bad experience somewhere along the line – maybe more than one. They are unhealthy and don’t seem to want a cure. I have not yet found the way to reach every student and get them to want a cure. What seems to work in the long-term is staying on message, doing the activities every day that I hope will promote writing and literacy health, and hoping that some of what I’m doing will get through them someday – maybe after they’ve left my class. But I see students every year who come alive to writing for the first time because of what I do, and they leave class in better health than they arrived with.

And that’s why we do this – isn’t it?

Images via www.mrfitz.com. Created by David Lee Finkle.

How would you define Writing Health? How would you diagnose it? How do you encourage a healthy writing life? Connect with me on Twitter @DLFinkle or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/mrfitzcomics

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