The Benefits of Writing 2: Discovering the Power of Words

This post is a little late – we were without power for four days thanks to Hurricane Ian hitting Florida. We got off easy: our house was undamaged, and we have one big tree limb down in our back yard. No flooding, no roof ripped off. We were exceedingly fortunate. We had plenty of flashlights and reading lights, though (a prerequisite for living in Florida) so with nothing to watch, five days off from school, and nothing to grade (that stack of essays is now digital – and here I am without my wifi!), I read.

I’d been reading Reading Lolita in Tehran both for pleasure and because I’m mentoring a student who is doing his extended I.B. essay on it. As I took a deep dive into the end of the book, Azar Nafisi’s memoir of teaching forbidden books in post revolutionary Iran – both in college classes and in her home with a group of young women – I was taken back to another book I read at the start of my career 30 (!) years ago now. That book, The Call of Stories by Robert Coles, continues to influence my teaching to this day. Both books are about teachers discussing the things they read with students, and applying them to their lives, their moments in history (for Nafisi, it is the Iranian Revolution; for Coles it is the Civil Rights Movement and the Viet Nam War).

In the class discussions related in these books, students wrestled with ambiguity, tried to apply the ideas and themes of the books they have read to the issues in their own lives, to their own moralities, philosophies, and life experiences.

You may be asking – what do these books have to do with the teaching of writing? Everything.

I have often bemoaned my students lack of engagement with reading and writing, their unwillingness at times to even do assignments. I have heard my fellow teachers do the same, in person and online. But I remind myself of a simple and startling discovery I made many years ago.

Here’s my discovery: Many of our students have never experienced words that meant anything to them.

I know that sounds crazy – it sounded crazy to me when I first realized it. Many of us who teach English do so because words have brought so much meaning into our lives, and we want to share that love of words with students. Like my alter ego Mr. Fitz in the strip below, I sometimes feel I am made of words.

But many of our students, even some of our readers, have never found words that actually meant something to them, to their actual lives, to getting through the hard times (like a hurricane or a pandemic), or even for getting through an ordinary day.

I discovered this lack of connection to words back in 2003, when I decided to use Marlo Thomas’s book The Right Words at the Right Time with my 7th grade classes. The book is a collection of essays from a wide variety of well-known people explaining a time when they received just the right words at the right time from another person, from a book, from a song – from nearly anywhere. (In our divisive times, it seems like a relic of post-9/11 unity: it contains essays from all over the political spectrum – Rudi Giuliani and Whoopi Goldberg are both here.) We read a variety of essays as mentor texts – Whoopi, Jay Leno, Dave Matthews, Sally Ride, Mia Hamm, among others – and noted what they did as writers, and then I asked students to write their own essay.

Many of them had no idea what to write. No words had ever meant much of anything to them. No words from songs. No words advice from a parent, teacher, or mentor. No words from a movie, a TV show, a poem, a book, or even a children’s book.

When I teach Fahrenheit 451, there is a scene where the book-burning fireman, Montag, visits the has-been professor Faber, who tells him what he thinks the role of books is. It is a speech that I have nearly memorized over the years. We recently went to see an excellent production of the play version of the novel at a theater in Gainesville, and when the lines arrived, verbatim from the book, they gave me goosebumps.

“Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them, at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.”

The standards that we are required to teach often give a glancing nod toward meaning – Florida’s new B.E.S.T. standards ask students to talk about “how key elements add layers of meaning and/or style” – as if meaning and style were more or less on the same level. But the standards don’t really ask students, or us as teachers, to really delve into meaning. I’m on my fifth set of standards here in Florida – and so far as I can tell, none of the recent standards have asked students to delve into what a piece of writing means. To read for meaning isn’t necessarily to find easy answers and simple platitudes. It is to think about what a writer is saying and relate it to our lives: our hopes, our dreams, our identities, our relationship, our society. We may find simple ideas that profoundly influence us, but we may also find paradoxes, ironies, contradictory ideas that we can hold in opposition. As F. Scott Fitz Gerald said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

This post might seem to be about reading, but writing comes into play here as well. One of the benefits of writing is to process the things we read, and the things that happen to us, to use words as guideposts, compasses, or even maps to get us through our lives.

So, what did I do for my students who claimed no words had ever meant anything to them? I sent them online to find words that perhaps they could apply to their own lives at BrainyQuote or a similar site. I got out books of quotes: Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, a book of quotes called Good Advice (that I can’t currently find online – I’ll try to find it when I’m back at school), What the Doormouse Said – Lessons for Grown-ups from Children’s Books, and Ifferisms: An Anthology of Aphorisms That Begin with the Word If, among others. Eventually, nearly everyone found words that they could apply to their lives.

Nowadays, I often make some of my journal questions quotes for students to reflect on. They usually relate to an inquiry question or text we are reading, but I ask them to agree or disagree – or find that they have a more nuanced reaction to it – and apply it to their lives. They can apply it to whatever we are reading, of course, but I emphasize making personal meaning from it, connecting it to their own lives.

I also encourage them to write about their own struggles, about what brings meaning into their lives. Some students head into the realm of religion, some into philosophy, some into writing about their identity in some way. Another assignment worth doing is a This I Believe Essay, based on the National Public Radio series of short essays of personal belief.

As I look back across the years at the five sets of standards I have taught through, there has been a movement away from personal meaning in reading and writing, toward a more detached, analytical, impersonal kind of writing – a movement motivated by the desire for “rigor.” But the more impersonal we make the writing we assign our students, the easier it is it plagiarize or even, these days, to get an artificial intelligence program to write it for you – in a nearly undetectable way. If an A.I. writes it, it can’t be found on the internet no matter how advanced the search.

More importantly, the further we move from words bringing meaning into students’ lives, the less we encourage words to “stitch the patches of the universe together” for our students, the less they are going to care about words, about reading and writing, about doing our assignments. I have often said that many students come from families where members don’t talk to each other, where big ideas are never discussed. English is the one place in their lives where big ideas can be discussed, read, and written about, where words can make a difference in their lives. Do we really think authors write what they write so that we can analyze it for rhetorical devices and ignore the actual meaning they were trying to convey?

My state’s current standards, the B.E.S.T. Standards, ask students to “Explain how key elements enhance or add layers of meaning” in a text. That is not the same as discussing meaning itself. My state’s original standards, the Sunshine State Standards, from the late 1990s/early 2000s, said something different. They said that the student “constructs meaning from a wide range of texts…”. This standard encourages “the student” to engage with what the text actually says.

In our race to be more rigorous, to be more college and career ready, have we forgotten the reasons people actually read and write? Have we rendered reading and writing meaningless to students? I think the system has. But in our classrooms, we can read for meaning, discuss meaning, and allow students to write things that mean something to them.

Ask students to write about what quotes mean to them. Ask them to write about what a text you’ve read in class actually meant to them. Ask them to write about themselves – their loves, hates, fears, and the things that they wonder about. (See last month’s post.)

I will go back to school Wednesday to resume a unit on survival. To ignore the fact that we have all just survived a major natural disaster would be to miss a teachable moment – and miss my students’ humanity. Many students may have never lost power, and therefore suffered only a few days off and staying inside for a couple of them. But others may have experienced power outages, flooding, or damage to their homes. I just don’t know. But I will give them a chance to write about Hurricane Ian.

Writing, like reading, can help us survive.

Image via Created by David Lee Finkle.

How do you help student construct meaning and discover the power of words? How do you help writing become relevant to their lives and identities? Connect with me on Twitter @DLFinkle or on Facebook at

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