In order to make what I’m about to say a little less identifiable, I’m not going to say which of my children is connected to what I’m about to share.
When one of my children was in the sixth grade, I visited their ELA classroom for Open House. After sitting at the desk and waiting for the teacher to start talking, I looked around the room and noticed the teacher had a handmade poster with the teacher’s classroom rules. On the poster, there was a rule about how to enter the room if a student came in late. There was a rule about water bottles. Finally, there was a rule about writing that went something like this, “Never use the words ‘me,’ ‘my,’ or ‘I’ in your writing.” You read correctly. In that English classroom for eleven-year-olds, in addition to the rules about their classroom behaviors, there was a rule restricting the type of writing the children were permitted to do.
I can only assume the restriction on the use of these words had to do with the fact that on standardized tests students write responses to prompts that need to use evidence to support the writing–not opinions or personal experience. Though this is something that students should learn how to do, I have never encountered a child who grew to love writing by only writing in this manner. What’s more, only writing in this way unnecessarily constricts the purposes of writing. In fact, there are generally three purposes for writing commonly known as P.I.E.:
Indeed, each of these forms can be done with or without the use of me, my, or I.
The main reason I was so struck by the banning of me, my, and I in writing is that I want people to LOVE to write and I know many people don’t. In fact, I think many people don’t like to write because they had a teacher like the one described above who made writing restrictive and impersonal.
I wrote the following in the chapter, “Absorbed: What,” in my book, Engagement Is Not a Unicorn (It’s a Narwhal):
People who are truly absorbed embrace the identity of the thing they are passionate about.
This reminds me of when I was a student-teacher. In my second placement, I taught eleventh-grade students. At some point, I asked them, “Who in here is a writer?” Not one student raised a hand. I was shocked (though I wouldn’t be now). I said, “Wait. Why is no one raising their hands? You can all write, correct? So why wouldn’t you call yourself a writer?” It’s a silly question now, I realize. Being able to do something—like write or chemistry or run—does not mean that someone sees that as their identity—I am a writer, a chemist, or a runner. Claiming an identity suggests a deeper level of both skill and absorption for the task that is being done. (p. 91)
Being absorbed means you are at the highest level of engagement (read more about absorption in the post, “We Made It). It means the task is intrinsically motivating and time passes by differently. It means rather than needing to tell me to keep doing it, you will need to tell me to stop doing it.
In terms of my identity, I am an English teacher. I am a reader and a writer. I want to help others claim this identity too–and I know this quest can often be an uphill battle. Instead of making this battle harder, how can we make the battlefield less steep? Here are two really easy and powerful steps.
The first key to helping people get good at something (writing or otherwise) is to get lots of exposure to it. The book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell introduced me to the idea of the “10,000-hour rule,” which basically asserts that successful people become successful through hours of exposure and practice. In other words, to become a good writer, people need to write; the quality of the product will come as a result of the quantity of the product.
Looking back, my own writing journey started just before my child’s sixth-grade teacher began teaching; the teacher told the parents this was their 29th year of teaching. So, my child’s teacher started teaching when I was just out of middle school, myself. In fifth grade, I had to write twenty essays to prompts–which were process writing tasks or writing that required an outline and rough draft. This equates to one process piece every other week.
By the sixth grade, I had to write in a writing notebook in addition to the other writing assignments like book reports and reports for Social Studies. I can see now all of this was designed to give us oodles of exposure and experience writing: quantity.
All About Me
A second key to helping people become writers is to allow them to write about themselves. There is research to support that people like to talk about themselves. According to the article by Adrian F. Ward, “The Neuroscience of Everybody’s Favorite Topic: Why do People Spend so Much Time Talking about Themselves,” in Scientific American,
If you’re like most people, your own thoughts and experiences may be your favorite topic of conversation. On average, people spend 60 percent of conversations talking about themselves—and this figure jumps to 80 percent when communicating via social media platforms such as Twitter or Facebook.
Why, in a world full of ideas to discover, develop, and discuss, do people spend the majority of their time talking about themselves? Recent research [from Harvard] suggests a simple explanation: because it feels good.
If writing quantity improves writing quality over time and talking about ourselves feels good, it stands to reason people would probably be motivated and successful when given the chance to write about themselves. This means journaling is a wonderful vehicle to encourage people to write.
I went to a really small public school in the middle of nowhere and had the same English teacher in grades seven, eight, and eleven. Each of those years he made us write in a writing notebook. The entries weren’t graded for anything other than making sure we wrote the number of entries we were supposed to. My teacher read what we wrote and responded in the margins–but not related to our conventions or grammar–but to the ideas and voice in our writing. The goal was to support each of us as writers.
For school, people might have to write essays, honors or master's theses, and/or dissertations. Writing for work purposes includes assisting with writing policies, procedures, and handbooks. All of these are examples of writing that is not personal and excludes the words me, my, and I. Even so, where does the writing journey start? For many, it is not formal and impersonal writing; writing often starts with writing about themselves, writing about topics that matter to the writer, and/or writing in a diary. As well, though professionally people should be able to write formally, most readers prefer writing–formal or informal–that connects to the reader (and the writer) and using words like me, my, I, us, we, and ours helps to build connections. Even nonfiction writing can be personalized. Take for example nonfiction blogs or biographies.
Writing About Writing
I don’t mean to oversimplify this. Not everyone will embrace the identity of being a writer. That’s okay. However, I do think if we have any hope of helping people find a writing identity, we need to give them ample opportunities to write a lot and to write about what interests them.
I am happy to report my child who had the teacher who banned me, my, and I did write a lot in sixth grade. As a result, my child’s stamina for writing grew as did their confidence. This was wonderful. Even so, I am sad my child did not have an opportunity to write in a way that explored who they were or to simply write about themself and the things they love. I remain hopeful that my child will have chances in the future to achieve these ends so that one day, they will raise their hand when asked, “Who in here is a writer?”
P.S. In case you were wondering, here is a count of the number of times I used me (10), my (17), and I (56)in this post.
P.S. My Catches of the Week are all of the teachers who both exposed me to writing and encouraged me to write. These include:
Mrs. Melody Troy (5th grade)
Mr. James Lusk (6th grade)
Mr. Steven Kickbush (7th, 8th, and 11th grades)
I became a writer as a result of my time with them. Who inspired you? If you can, take the time to write them to let them know.
P.P.S. Please remember to...
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