I came across a tribute video today for the long-lost Montreal Expos MLB team. That, along with this weekend's induction ceremony, meaning that we are about to have our second player in Cooperstown, is making me feel downright nostalgic for a team that I grew up cheering for. My father arrived in Montreal the same year the Expos started playing. He used to tape the games off the radio. He took us to the games growing up and he would have them on the radio playing as we splashed in our pool during the summer. My first real date was to an Expos game. I was there for two of Gary Carter's last three games. I watched Vladimir Guerrero out-slug Mark McGuire during batting practice. And I cried in 1994 when our team was robbed of the opportunity to finally play in the postseason.
I could write a book about my memories of the Expos. We all could fill a book with our memories of something cherished or if we were talking about something that truly inspires us. I have bored many a friend describing exactly why watching Micheal Phelps swim makes my heart ache because it is so beautiful. Students are rarely asked to write about a subject that they are passionate about; most of the time, as adults, we could care less. In fact, we wish most of the time that they would concentrate on "more meaningful" interests. And when they talk about those things they love, we only half-listen, because, really, why should we care?
We should care because they care. And because they care, we have an opportunity to reach out to them and improve their writing. As an evaluation exercise at the beginning of the semester, my students were required to write an in-class essay. One of the subjects they could choose to write about was their most prized possession. Having never written anything outside of a 5-paragraph essay, most of my students had no idea how to communicate their passion onto the page; I would get three reasons, duly enumerated and described. One example that always stood out for me was when students would write about their prized sneaker collection. I read that they were prized because they were expensive, that the student worked hard to buy them, that they represented the student's individuality. But never once did I read an essay that actually described the shoes.
What do they look like? How do you feel when you wear them? How did it feel when you found them and then were able to buy them? Don't give me an expository essay about your shoes; tell me about your shoes. And, suddenly, an average-to-poor writer will come alive. A good-to-great writer will become even better. And, most importantly, a scared, scarred writer will begin to see that they have nothing to be afraid of anymore.
Grammar can be taught and practiced writing about anything. Learning how to use powerful, descriptive, active language can happen more readily when the student has powerful, descriptive, active things to write about. When a student cares about actually conveying a message, they more readily learn about organization. All of these skills can easily be transferred to writing about anything and everything. Including academic, college-level writing.
I'm not saying anything new nor am I reinventing the wheel. But sometimes we need to be reminded that when a student has never been asked to write about something they care about, they come to hate the task itself as much as the subject.
But what about critical thinking, that next step in achieving college-level writing. Once you get a student started down the path, it becomes a lot easier to push them in new directions, getting them to answer more difficult and challenging questions about that thing they are passionate about. Take the example with the designer sneakers. Why are these shoes so desirable? Why are they so expensive? Why do you need 20, 30, 100 pairs of shoes? Where and how are the shoes made? You can get into critical conversations about sweat shop labor, the power of marketing and branding, or the nature of our consumer society. The student might never give up collecting designer sneakers, but at least they have begun to see the complexity of the world around them.
So, ask your students or your teens what they love. And then, get them to write about it. Their college professors will thank you for it.