Currently a department co-chair and co-director with the Pennsylvania Writing & Literature Project, Brian Kelley has taught 6th, 7th, and 8th grade for over twenty years.

Living in Cages

Living in Cages

This week, four experiences with writing collided beneath me like shifting tectonic plates:

  1. A student of mine, Jay, blogged about writing (Real World Writing) and he has me thinking.

  2. A colleague questioned why don't students know how to research anymore; why don't we teach it anymore; why isn't someone training us to teach writing across the curriculum?

  3. I reread, annotated, and sketchnoted Katherine Bomer's The Journey is Everything.

  4. I engaged in a Twitter exchange with a writing tutor, Liz, at Villanova University (she also happens to be a former middle school student of ours).

I want to bring two of these experiences together. I want you to compare Jay's thinking as an adolescent in 8th grade to Liz's experience as an adult and as a writing tutor (upcoming italics mine):

This brings me to my point of real world writing. This form of writing has only been brought to my attention recently in school and I feel we should’ve been learning this way all along. This is the type of writing where you are expressing your feelings, being honest, and letting loose. Many forms of writing today punish that creativity. I feel this restriction creates false standards and pushes you to write like a robot. --Jay

[Students] seem to have spent a lot of time in high school exploring and reporting on what texts and disciplines say (e.g. repeating information) and in college they are asked to critically engage with their personal insights into why and how those texts, time periods, results, etc. produce that writing is persuasive writing primarily and students need help adjusting to that.” --Liz

Jay and Liz are communicating the same things from opposite ends of the trajectory of education. It is what happens in the middle--the adolescent's time with us--that shapes whether he/she is college ready. It is true, education has traditionally framed college-ready writing within scaffolds and graphic organizers. We graft hamburger visuals and five paragraph essays into a minds-eye. We indoctrinate students with Document-Based Questions (DBQs) and Text-Dependent Analysis (TDAs) so much that these experiences are often all adolescents know about writing. 

For example, last year I took some time after school to podcast with some 4th and 5th-grade students. Before recording, the energized students pelted me with questions: who are you? what do you teach? do you know my friend? When it was my turn to ask questions, I eventually asked them to tell me about their writing life. Can you guess what they so energetically told me about? 


When I tried to move beyond the formula, the young students returned to formula as if I were gravely mistaken and completely unaware of what writers do. In their experience, the formula is writing. As one little girl explained very sincerely, "This is what writers do." This strikes me as natural as teaching a kid that cages in zoos are indeed where gorillas live and want to live.

Imagine a child who only knows and believes that gorillas are in cages in zoos. Imagine this child seeing an image of a gorilla in the wild. Imagine her disbelief. Imagine her pause. Imagine her wondering not only how that gorilla got out of her cage but also why would the gorilla ever dream of leaving her cage?

Living in cages is what gorillas do.

I think we do this to adolescents. Historically, we have. I lived through it. Suffered through it. All throughout my education, I never believed that I liked writing or that I was a writer. Actually, the only things I vividly remember are the remarks concerning why I wasn't a writer--the mistakes and errors I made.

When Jay writes a few lines later that "emotion has to be involved" in writing, I am left thinking of the gorilla in captivity and the little child staring at it and wondering with utter sincerity, "why is it sad?"

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