Recently some colleagues and I were discussing the teaching of writing for elementary school students. The general mood of the discussion was frustration with expecting students to perform well in an on-demand setting. (see On-Demand Writing) I was shocked to hear a respected colleague question the teaching of narrative writing. “After all,” this person said, “no one ever writes narratives as an adult.”
Silence fell and everyone looked at me.
“Well, most people don’t,” this person admitted with a grin.
I laughed it off, but the comment stayed with me. Is the purpose of elementary school to teach only what a child needs as an adult? Who decides what skill set they need? I’m quite sure that the skills I use every day are very different from the skills of astrophysicist Stephen Hawking or NFL star Vernon Davis or supermodel Cindy Crawford. And when Stephen, Vernon, Cindy, and myself were in elementary school did our teachers know what we would be? What skills we would need? I don’t think so.
As teachers we learn to teach children with differing abilities and learning styles. Some can only study with music. Some need to move, or see instructions written down, or interact with something to learn about it. A good teacher balances investigations, lectures, visual presentation, and written directions so as to reach everyone.
Within that class are children with varied interests that include sports, art, drama, math, science, reading, and, believe it or not, writing. Anything that interests a child can be used to instruct them. Math facts can be rapped, P.E. can be the latest dance, art can be a Social Studies project. Writing stretches across the curriculum. Students learn summaries, response to literature, research reports, persuasive writing, and how to write short answer responses on tests. And they learn to write stories and poems.
Tompkins (1982) lists seven reasons creative writing should be included in the elementary school classroom. Here are those reasons, with my thoughts.
1. to entertain Stories and poems entertain the reader as well as the writer. Of course while students are learning it is as agonizing as those first weeks of violin lessons and as frustrating as learning to do a layup in basketball. With practice, the end product improves and so does the enjoyment.
2. to foster artistic expression Creative writing is just that–creative. Every child has stories within them (see Everybody Has a Story), and most have an innate desire to express themselves in words. With encouragement, teachers can use writing as an artistic outlet as well as drawing or music.
3. to explore the functions and values of writing If my elementary school teachers had focused on reports and functional writing, I would have felt cheated once I discovered narrative! How can students be taught the different purposes of writing if you don’t teach all types of writing?
4. to stimulate imagination Today’s students are often caught up in video games, or in the stress of giving the teacher enough to get good grades. True imagination must be stimulated. It’s the adults with imagination who innovate, who can see how life can be improved. Those with imagination will someday cure cancer and AIDS, solve the world’s hunger issues, and neutralize the greenhouse effect. We can never achieve the solutions if we can’t envision them.
5. to clarify thinking Students often write about what is troubling them. In journals or personal narratives they can act out their anger or frustration and test out different courses of action. By role modeling on paper, they can choose the best course of action for real life, or indulge their fantasies and get rid of that bully once and for all!
6. to search for identity By exploring narrative genres, students can be the bully and the princess, the athlete and the nerd. Some roles will feel odd to them and others will settle on them like a familiar coat. Success at creative writing can, in itself, give a student an identity in the classroom.
7. to learn to read and write Students who read are better writers. Reading shouldn’t be taught without writing and vice versa. There are many students whose creativity shines in narrative, so stories are an enjoyable way to practice communicating with writing.
Narrative writing is hard work, but it can be immensely rewarding for both teacher and student. It absolutely should be an important part of every elementary school day, whether the children are going to write narratives as adults or not.
Hmmm, I don’t use algebra every day. Maybe we should stop teaching THAT.
What do YOU think?
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