Are writing and English the same?

In our most recent symposium, Paul Graham’s ‘The Age of the Essay‘ came up for discussion.

What intrigued me most about this piece is Graham’s proposition that the disciplines of English literature and writing may not be synonymous. To be honest, prior to Graham’s Essay the thought had hardly crossed my mind. In high school, anything to do with, or concerns regarding writing, are matters for the English teacher.

Graham argues that the reason so many young people have become disinterested in writing (and subsequently produce poor quality or incoherent essays), is that instead of writing…

…about how a baseball team with a small budget might compete with the Yankees, or the role of color in fashion, or what constitutes a good dessert, [students are writing] about symbolism in Dickens.

No disrespect to Dickens, but I think Graham’s on to something.

I know very little about the International Baccalaureate® (IB) education philosophy or system, but I do know all students who take on the IB have the opportunity to research and write about an area that particularly interests them. As I’ve mentioned in a number of recent posts, education is so much more interesting when we are actively engaged, when it’s targeted towards our personal needs and passions, and when it is future-driven – namely, we can see how we’ll be able to apply what we’re learning in our future careers and to achieve life goals.

I’m lucky. As this blog makes pretty clear, I enjoy reading, writing, and interpreting. English was one of my favourite subjects at school and on the whole, I was pleased with the texts we were given to study. However, my pleasure in the subject certainly wained when we studied what to me was, a less-appealing text, and my interest in writing a chemistry report was verging on non-existent.

This holds true to Graham’s proposition that one’s ability to engage with, enjoy and actively develop their writing skill and discipline is fundamentally caught up with their interest in the(ir) subject.

Graham says:

The seeds of our miserable high school experiences were sown in 1892, when the National Education Association [of America] “formally recommended that literature and composition be unified in the high school course.”

To my knowledge, this proposition is globally transferable, and is certainly something I can relate to. If you want your students to look forward to writing, give them a choice of texts to study. Some kids might really enjoy watching and reflecting on action movies, others might enjoy drawing up and constructing analytical reports on climate change. Maybe you’ve got a student who is utterly obsessed with dogs, and wants to be a vet when he or she grows up. Why not work with this child to compose a task that satisfies the curriculum, and engages them, motivates them, and works with their personal curiosities? Surely this would only result in higher student attention, retention and participation. Ultimately, isn’t that what we want from and for our students?

As I’ve somewhat alluded to, as we progress through the education system, opportunities for such self-selected or self-directed tasks do increase. Not many people complete a PhD in an area of little personal interest. We are more likely to dedicate our time and efforts towards something we want to invest in. Right now, Christopher Pyne is striving – and striding – towards rewriting and (re)establishing a more uniform, national curriculum. Yet, isn’t this ‘one size fits all’ approach to education only going to lead to greater disengagement, sketchier attendance rates, and consequently (and what is surely one of two primary motivators for Pyne – the other being re-Westernising an increasingly multicultural society), poorer results?

Mr Pyne, teachers and educational leaders, take a leaf out of Logan LaPlante’s hackschooling ‘book’. Learn to work with your students rather than for a system. If they want to compose an audiovisual response to a Mahler symphony, instead of the standard intro-paras-one-two-three-conclusion essay to some politically-identified set text – and it just feels right – then I say, let them.

We need to keep personalising education, and writing, if we are to achieve better results.

Those who want to write about English literature will continue to write about English literature. And, the others? Well, you’ve got a much greater chance of students writing about something they’re interested in and handing that in, than you’ll ever have of them submitting an inspired essay about English literature, too.

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