Writing in West Virginia

More often than not students choose not to exercise the power of language because adults and professionals seem to reserve language for themselves. Strict adherence to convoluted conventions prevent the amateur from fully enjoying writing. Students read literary masterpieces without ever being shown sloppy and ineffective drafts. Writing seems to be reserved only for the intelligentsia. The hobbyist writer is punished by rejection and ridicule. Educators, completely lacking enthusiasm for practicing the craft, critique without offering guidance. The industrial education system incentivizes the quick turnaround of student assignments, and the quick transition to another unit of instruction. Students are expected to peer edit before turning in a final draft, but their peers never learned how to edit. Students throw their hands up in frustration because of inconsistent advice. It seems that no one truly knows the absolute truth of English conventions, so students give up, turning in incomplete and muddled essays. The teacher grades the essay, the student throws it away, and the process repeats until the end of the school year.

Is it any wonder that our students hate writing? The rigors of modern education removed the humanity from the product. By stressing conventions over content, teachers and academics have managed to strip amateur writing of its individuality. All in the name of student success, we have arranged errors in a hierarchy. We have developed expensive writing maps and formulas, and we have shown great surprise at the homogeneity and mediocrity of the products produced by students through these methods.

As an instructor, I have perpetrated all of these frustrations, but last year I decided that I would become a salesman for writing. I looked among my students and picked out my most reluctant writers. If I could get them to enjoy writing, then I could persuade anyone.

One of those students was May. She was artistic and willing to work hard with her talents. At the beginning of the school year, I had all of my students enter the West Virginia Young Writer’s Contest. May wrote her piece for the contest begrudgingly. She made it plain to anyone who would listen that she thought the contest was stupid.

During brainstorming I mentioned that students could increase their chances of being selected for entry if their story mentioned West Virginia or Appalachia. May wrote “West Virginia in every single sentence:

I woke up one morning in West Virginia. I ate some apples from West Virginia, then went outside for a walk. The sky of West Virginia is blue with clouds and birds flying around chirping. I walked back to my house in West Virginia. Then I hopped in my car and drove around West Virginia. I stopped at my girlfriend’s house in West Virginia. We went to Dollar General in the state of West Virginia. I bought a pair of West Virginia sweatpants and some snacks for the road trip tomorrow. I took my girlfriend back to her beautiful home in West Virginia. I said “don’t forget to be up early for tomorrow.” I went home, ate, showered, and then went to bed in my tiny West Virginia home.

The paper was absolutely ridiculous; it wasn’t what I asked for. It went on for four pages. In a different mind set, I would’ve taken the paper, vomited red ink all over it, and made her rewrite the entire thing, but dammit, I was going to make writing fun.

With the patience of a scientist conducting an experiment, I decided to take May’s paper for what it was, a complete lampooning of the West Virginia Young Writer’s Contest. May had picked up on my suggestion that the students pander to their judges by focusing on Appalachian themes and pointed out the silliness of it all. She had used my own words against me, challenged my authority as her instructor, and pointed out a flaw in my thinking- I was ecstatic. Her efforts showed a deeper thinking, whether or not she realized it.

I embraced May’s humor. I edited her paper just as I would any other. I laughed with her in the margins. She was right; the requirement to focus on Appalachia limited creativity. I had stripped away their opportunity to be individuals. It encouraged complete homogeny. May’s story, however amateurish, was unique in a pile of narratives about poverty and coal mines. May had taught me an important lesson. She taught me to embrace my students’ creativity, to allow them to defy my expectations, and to permit them to challenge my perceptions.

May had taken a risk with me. She had sent a paper across my desk expecting disappointment. She was surprised when I praised her humor. I used her narrative as a mini lesson in humor. I leveraged her writing into a teachable moment. I returned her essay with a fair grade and put her to work on another piece.

My reaction to the West Virginia story built rapport and trust. Afterward, May viewed me as her partner in creativity, not as her jailer.

I repeated the process of rapport building with my other reluctant writers. For nine weeks, I transitioned the class to a writing workshop. Students worked on writing projects of their choice Tuesday through Thursday.  Students wrote across genres in forms ranging from fan mail to eulogy. By the end of the quarter, my reluctant writers were all converts, and per their request we left Fridays open for writing the rest of the school year.

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