Thoughts on Writing, Teaching, and "The Blank Page"

 

"The Blank Page" – other than the "Staring Audience" we find in a typical speech class, this silent challenger is probably one of the most intimidating to us mere mortals.  If adults often recoil from the idea of having to “write something,”  imagine the eight-year-old…the twelve-year-old…the sixteen-year-old…void of skills and  life experience, staring at The Blank Page. 

He gets the assignment:  “Write about a place you’d like to visit.”  Panic!  “A place?” he muses.  “What’s this thing…A Place?  This word sounds strange.  Have I even been to A Place before?”  Desperate, he rereads the prompt.  “Write about a place you like to visit.  “Oh,” he muses, “it’s a place I want to go…to.   So I have to go there…I have to want to go there…this Place. “ 

Five minutes have passed and not one word is on the paper. 

“I don’t want to go anywhere,” he thinks.  “Well, actually, I do.  I want to go to bed.  THAT’S the stupid Place I’d like to be right now.  Ahh…my bed…soft and warm…it likes me…it never gives me writing assignments…I’m safe in my bed…” 

Ten minutes have passed…still no writing has occurred.

I am intimately acquainted with the above scenario, having been through it countless times in my life.  (My mother basically wrote my sixth-grade Aztec report!)  I always loved books and language and words, but I hobbled along through school, including much of college, not really feeling confident about how to approach writing.

 When I became a high school English teacher, my first order of business was to figure out how to teach kids to write without fear…without panic…with some modicum of confidence.  My dear Master Teacher, Sonia Koujakian, was an incredible blessing to me, generously sharing her decades of experience as a truly gifted writing instructor. 

Still I struggled to find a methodology that would work for my “natural” writers as well as my “I’d-rather-have-a-tooth-pulled-than-write” students, AND I needed a methodology that also worked for ME as an instructor.  Thus, I tirelessly searched for better writing instruction techniques, attending many teacher seminars, such as the Bay Area Writing Project at Berkeley.  I bought numerous books and implemented many different ideas…”writer’s workshops” being the most time-consuming and, frankly, the biggest flop with my pupils.  I was desperately seeking the Holy Grail of writing instruction. 

Who would have thought that my pedagogical epiphany would have occurred outside the professional arena?

 

But it did!  In the summer of 2001, after having left the classroom to educate my children at home, I participated in a viewing of the Institute for Excellence in Writing Structure and Style seminar on VHS tapes.  (Remember VHS tapes?)  What I learned over several weeks absolutely revolutionized my teaching.  Never had writing instruction been so clearly laid out, so easy to implement, easier still to follow!  I longed for a classroom in which I could experiment.  Thus, with my son only beginning second grade, I launched my first IEW writing class.  About ten students and I met in the basement of a nearby church and together we unlocked the mysteries of great writing!

Since then, I have been teaching local writing classes for homeschooled students and have been blessed to be able to expand into the exciting “cyberspace” format.

 

The primary goal of writing instruction should be to make this discipline achievable for students.  To that end, I start gently, repeating and practicing until students are comfortable with the process or skill we are working on ( as much as is possible in a classroom setting).   I do try to stretch and challenge my pupils a bit, but mostly I want them to learn the process of writing:  how to start…how to structure a sentence, a paragraph, a composition…how to improve on what they’ve written…etc.  I want them to face "The Blank Page" with a confidently defiant curled lip.  "Ha ha!  YOU don't intimidate me anymore!"    Students at different levels will, of course, perform differently, but their writing, God willing, will improve from the instruction and practice in my classes.