Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been meeting with a few students who wanted the opportunity to revise their midterm take-home essay exams because they were not satisfied with their grades. As I sat down with each one to go over their paper, I realized that, for the most part, they understood the material and could express their ideas clearly when talking to me about them. The problem came when they tried to put their words in writing. They simply cannot express themselves as clearly or logically in a written form.
After talking to these students, I returned home to my 9-year-old daughter who moans, groans and complains every time she has to write a paragraph–and she has a lot of paragraphs to write this year. “I don’t know what to say,” she says. “Can you help me?”
“What do you have to write about?”
Sometimes it is a response to a reading, or a prompt to use her imagination and tell a creative story. I will ask her questions, and she can (usually) answer them. If she can’t answer them, I tell her to reread the passage, and then she is able to answer well. In terms of creativity I’ve heard her make up stories inspired by something small, and sat through endless puppet shows created by her and her friends. She has also written numerous poems that you can find sprinkled throughout my blog posts. But, when it comes to assignments for school, she struggles. Her topic sentences are often vague. Her supporting details are sometimes weak. Her concluding sentences non-existent.
Like the college students, she struggles with conveying ideas in a written form.
As a teacher, I’ve often struggled with my own inability to understand why people have difficulty writing. I know, it sounds naive, because everyone has skills that differ from each other. But expressing myself in words has always come naturally to me. When talking to these students or my daughter, they express themselves in words. So why, I wonder, is it so difficult to put those words onto the page?
It’s possible, I suppose, that the difference lies in how people use their brains. The students that I have been working with are predominantly business majors, so I am sure their comfort with numbers, statistics, and graphs is much higher than my own.
But still, that doesn’t explain the gap between the ability to talk fluently about something and the ability to write eloquently and logically about the same topic.
Perhaps the difference lies in how we perceive writing. To me writing is part of my thought process. When I need to work through a problem or an issue, I write. When I am frustrated or angry about something, I write. At times I have even written letters or e-mails to explain an important issue to someone. I am more confident in my ability to express myself in writing than I am in my ability to talk.
Why? Well, as a talker I have a few habits that I have never successfully broken, especially if I am nervous:
- I giggle
- I talk with my hands
- I pace.
In other words, I do all the things I shouldn’t do if I want to be a great speaker. Somehow these habits in addition to my short stature makes me seem less authoritative even when I am the expert in the room.
However, when I write nobody knows what I look like. Nobody hears the giggles or sees the talking hands. Nobody notices my quirks and my pacing.
When I write, I become the speaker I wish I could be.
For me writing is my language of comfort. For my students they communicate in other ways. In Introductory Theater courses I usually give an option for my projects which allows for any type of presentation; including written papers, performed scenes, artistic projects, etc. I try to leave it open-ended to allow for the variety of learners that come to my classes. For this upper-division course, however, which is filled with seniors, I am requiring written research/analysis papers as their final project.
Am I doing them an injustice by demanding that they express themselves in writing?
These are students who will soon walk out into the world. Most of them will enter the world of business. Most of them will never have to write another long paper. They’ ll never have to do library research. They’ll never have to turn in a written document with a well-thought out argument.
But then again, maybe they will. If they want to move up in the business world, they need to be able to express themselves clearly. They need to be able to write well-constructed letters; develop well-thought out and researched reports. They need to be able to express themselves in ways beyond the numbers and graphs.
In other words, they need to be able to write.
And I need to be able to speak the words I write.
We all have something to learn.