Our November writing blogs continue with Zoe Tuohy, a veteran English teacher and the Middle School Dean of Academic Life.
Writing as a skill and as a form of communication has been important throughout history. Some of the most influential writers have created major schools of thought: Mary Wollstonecraft, early 18th century feminist; Charles Darwin, influencing the study of biology, evolution, and religious doctrine; Rene Descartes, author of the famous “I think therefore I am,” shaping the field of mathematics; William Shakespeare, through thousands of words in over thirty plays, changing the direction of the English language; and Ayn Rand, her philosophies still hotly debated today.
The written word has the power to communicate, to connect, to unlock understanding, to reveal, and to define us as humans. It gives us a window into the human experience in different contexts and cultures around the world. Writing inspires us and offers us power. To be able to write meaningfully, we must also be able to reflect on ourselves and the world around us, to have an imagination that offers new territories to explore, and to be able to convey information purposefully and intentionally. Writing is not a frivolous skill. In fact, extracting original thought and helping students to articulate their ideas—verbally or on paper—are two of the most important things we can do as educators.
Additionally, the world is far more connected than it was several decades ago. Video-conferencing is not limited to conference rooms of major corporations; on the contrary, our tech-savvy students have the capacity to unite with others around the world almost instantaneously. How then can we as teachers and parents encourage them to use the written word to carefully articulate original ideas based on research and discussion in a way that can create a lasting impact on their own lives and the world?
At Gill St Bernard’s, our curriculum places a major emphasis on writing. While not every student will become a best-selling author as an adult (or even want to), each student will need to be able to successfully think critically about a topic, draw conclusions and synthesize information, and then express those ideas in a clear and succinct way. The Lower School adopted the writer’s workshop program, born out of Columbia University’s Teachers College and renowned professor Lucy Calkins. One of the hallmarks of this pedagogy is the assertion that we are teaching the writer, not the writing. Students learn that their words matter, and that their imaginations and lives are fertile sites from which to develop ideas to be shared. Through process writing, students experience what all famous thinkers and writers live through as they continuously go back to ideas in a journal and expand them into larger pieces with a specific audience in mind.
In the Middle School, students experience writing in many academic subject areas. They play with creative and expository writing, hone research skills and formulate arguments, and learn the common structures of each form of writing. Through each assignment, whether it is a persuasive essay or an imaginative story, students practice sentence structure and mechanics, and ultimately learn to convey their ideas in a way that readers can visualize and understand. Research in support of ideas is an essential aspect of writing in middle school classes. Students are encouraged to find evidence in a novel or journal article, analyze and draw conclusions, and then communicate those conclusions effectively. Writing is a complex thought process. Middle schoolers will often make assumptions about what they think their reader already knows, often leaving out important details. The process of peer editing and revision is critical for giving middle school students the tools necessary to elaborate further and to become truly effective thinkers and communicators.
Finally, writing has the power to help all of us navigate the complexities of life. Recently I attended the Dodge Poetry Festival with our Upper School Creative Writing class and Dr. Andrew Lutz, Chair of the English Department. It struck me how many poets and writers cited journal-writing as critical to not only their growth as writers, but also to their growth as individuals. Sandra Cisneros, poet, short story writer, and novelist, commented after her poetry reading: “Everyone needs to write, but not everyone is a writer—to think, to process, to understand yourself better.” Writing truly is a powerful tool that can unite us, grow our understanding of ourselves and the world in which we live, and help us to convey ideas that are worthy for consideration and application across the globe.
If you are interested in further exploring the topic of writing and education, please consider reading with me this year: Because Writing Matters: Improving Student Writing in our Schools and Handbook of Writing Research.
– Zoe Tuohy, MS Dean of Academic Life and English Teacher