Last time, I told you to have your students write more this school year. I argued that both your life and the lives of your students will be better if you do this.
But that's pretty big talk coming from an English/history teacher, isn't it? What about folks who don't teach these kinds of classes?
For this, let's start with what classes are for.
Classes (and schools) exist to promote the long-term flourishing of young people by teaching them to master things they otherwise wouldn't.
When I say classes, I mean literally every class that is taught by an earnest teacher. This is what classes are for. This is what education does. This is our lane in the lives of young people.
And so, if you'll forgive the reductions of a man who's never taught anything besides English or history:
- In physical education classes, we're helping students master what it means to be alive in a body.
- In band classes, we're helping students master music as individuals and as members of a team.
- In computer science classes, we're helping students master problem-solving with hardware or software.
And this then brings us to a core principle for deciding when and how to incorporate writing into a class. For writing to make sense in a given class, the writing must somehow be contributing toward that class' essential purpose. In other words: if writing doesn't help a student walk further down the road of mastery in your class, then the student should not be doing the writing.
(If that sounds severe, I suppose it's meant to be. I am very passionate about each class in a student's day making sense. That begins, of course, with each class making sense to the person teaching it.)
And so in a physical education class, daily provisional writing probably doesn't make sense. Time is already short in these classes, what with dressing and stretching and getting equipment out and away and all of that. But:
- Doesn't it seem brilliant to have students keeping at least a weekly log of their physical activity? Of fitness goal-setting? Of reflecting on how eating or sleeping patterns influence their performance in class? This kind of thing could happen in a spiral notebook kept just in the phys ed room, one bin per class. Students could access and write in their journals during a five minute period, say each Monday and Friday. The teacher could periodically peruse these logs to get to know students better.
- And would such an activity not communicate to students that there's a seriousness to phys ed that they may otherwise miss?
In band, I'd picture something similar. In band, time is also very precious. Class size can be huge. There are instruments to get out and tune, sheets of music to arrange. What I'd picture here is some kind of musician's log in which students respond with a sentence or two each day or so to a prompt that gets them focused on what it means to be a musician.
- What was your practice session like last night?
- What has been the most rewarding thing about using your instrument in the last week?
- Which song is the most pleasant to play on your instrument right now, and why?
- What, for you right now, is the most difficult thing about being a musician?
I'm just making these up as I go. I'm wanting to balance fun with serious, light with heavy. I'm wanting my musicians to take a few moments to focus their minds and hearts on certain ideas about music or about themselves or about struggle or about triumph.
And something similar for computer science — every couple of days, ask students to get out their spirals and free write for five minutes in response to prompts.
- What's the most interesting problem you've solved in this class lately?
- Which concepts are tripping you up right now as a programmer?
- If you had to explain computer science to a five-year-old right now, how would you do it?
And I hope that, with all of these, certain properties of writing come to the fore — properties that are uniquely useful in the pursuit of mastery.
- Writing focuses the mind. I've yet to figure out how to both write and daydream.
- Writing clarifies muddy thinking. This is part of why the book writing process is such a necessary misery for me — it forces me to face the parts of my thinking that, apart from writing, would always just be safely fuzzy in the clouds of my mind.
- Writing makes visible to the writer (and teacher) what is invisible. If I'm a biology teacher and I ask my students verbally, “You all remember photosynthesis from last unit, right?” I'm likely to get many nods. But if I instead ask my students to spend two minutes free-writing about photosynthesis in their spiral notebooks using as many academic vocabulary words as they can, now I (and they) KNOW whether they remember it or not.
It's these properties of writing that make it something so useful (and under-used) across the school day.
P.S. If you're concerned about students protesting or disengaging from writing in non-traditional subjects, you'll be interested in my book The Will to Learn: Cultivating Student Motivation Without Losing Your Own. And, if you've read it, would you do me a favor? Rate or review it on Amazon.