Our literary histories

These students do not live, do not write in a vacuum. As a part of my brief investigation into their beliefs and habits, I sought to grasp their origins. So, I asked them questions about their educational histories, hoping to uncover

what obstacles/childhood situations possibly could have  led to their habits and perspectives today?

We all carry with us the sum of our experiences memories and influences. These really have an immeasurable effect on our perspectives and habits concerning life in general, and to no insignificant degree, on our writing. Our “professional” writers are no different.

Take a quick listen to 20th century British children’s writer Enid Mary Blyton as she shares an anecdote about moments in her own childhood that inspired her to write (you should right-click and open in a new tab/window):

Enid Blyton on her childhood and wanting to write

Totes adorbz, no? Her enjoyment telling stories to her younger brothers carried over directly into her future. Her parents, like most, had visions of what Blyton’s life would be like; she was pushed to be a musician by her father. She resisted though, and my her teens she was aware of her desire to write. She notes in particular one summer in her later teens when she worked at a Sunday school and truly realized her calling. Blyton recounts, “I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy in my life as i was that afternoon telling stories to these four children.”

“If you have to work at something that you have really no desire to achieve anything great in, it becomes a terrible pall; and all the time, I still wanted to write.”

Enid Mary Blyton

Perhaps without the experience of reading to her brothers she would not have felt the power of this seminal moment so strongly, and perhaps without the tiresome “pall” of daily piano practice, she mightn’t have turned to writing as a release valve. I believe it is that way with many young writers today. They might (or might not) realize that they have certain behaviors and attitudes because of a past relationship with writing.

This is a great time to bring us back in conversation with the inimitable wisdom of Mr. Sellars. I asked him, just as I planned to ask the students, about his relationship with writing as a child.

Intriguing, eh? Mr. Sellars directly attributes positive experiences with writing in his childhood with his successes writing later in life. He even goes so far as to identify how developing an observer’s eye via constant journaling helped him develop discrete skills, like identifying imagery in other people’s writing as well as including it in his own. He notes though that he wasn’t explicitly encouraged to write, he was encouraged to read, a related skill set which he identifies as possessing power for developing writing skills. Fundamentally, though, his childhood environment was one that certainly supported his development as a writer.

I was encouraged to read, writing’s brother […] A consumption of letters and words, is at the heart of it all.

Mr. Sellars

Well, what about our two students? We’ve seen a few of the differences between them, I wonder how their histories with reading and/or writing compare….

M’s responses to these questions really validate my work as a teacher of English:

Question: Did your parents make you write a lot?

Response: Uhhh, yeah. A LOT.

Question: Do you think it helped you as a writer?

Response: Definitely.

Boom. Practice of writing, like any skill can make you better at it. M’s comments on the quantity of practice indicate that she likely didn’t live for this writing rehearsal in her childhood, but I don’t doubt that she appreciates its value (more than she did at the time) and its impact on her abilities in the classroom.

D’s relationship was a bit different, though. I asked D why he thinks he struggles at writing; he quickly pointed out his vocabulary, or lack thereof. He said that his  dad made him focus on math and science related study when he was younger, and that he therefore didn’t spend that time practicing writing and vocabulary skills. I wondered then, and I continue to wonder if he came to that conclusion on his own or if he picked it up from somewhere else.

He mentions that his mom stresses his writing, citing her background in education, but I wonder what, if any, conflict arose between Mom’s wishes and Dad’s; it seems that Dad held sway, pushing him towards math and science, fields in which he claims success.

D commented that learning Arabic and English simultaneously was an interference for him, that he didn’t learn English well because he was hearing/learning another language at the same time. This comes as contrary to what a lot of educational theorists say now. Many believe that students who are raised in bi- or multilingual households will have better language skills, a belief that has caused primary schools to offer foreign language immersion programs in several languages.

Not all moments in a student’s writing history are as positive and effective as M’s, or even as ostensibly neutral.

Would you like some evidence? Fine. Meet R.

R is a freshman at our school, is an honors student, and in the same class as D, incidentally.

R, while by no means a “bad” writer for someone her age, is not phenomenal either. Much of what she lacks she makes up for with effort. She  fits the “potential bad writer” profile to some degree, preferring to do some of the pre-writing steps of which teachers are so fond “in [her] head.” Technology has made the drafting an revision processes happen concurrently for R, and she has heretofore not seen the value in going back again for more revision.  She is the kind of student, though, who will and does ask for help.

So what were the details of her experiences with writing as a child?

Oho!! Quite a difference from emphatic encouragement, and even a far cry from being put on the back burner in lieu of other academic study, R, was flat-out told she was incapable of achieving success with writing.  She remarked that she “hated” reading  growing up. She was put in “remedial” writing classes when she was younger because, as she says, she “couldn’t spell”. That kind of statement from your teachers has to be discouraging.

That kind of intellectual trauma (pardon my accidental rhyme and melodrama) makes me sad.

Indeed, her time in those classes made her less willing to read, even though she was at least proficient at it.  I would wager that many of the kids who are put in any “remedial” class for subject would have a much lower academic trajectory, lower patience with schools and educators, and a lower level of engagement with academic tasks.  R and her parents (who she also identifies as unable to spell) did not buy into the dogma, moving her into “Honors” classes in short order. Now, she “loves” to read, and is writing with success. Some combination of R and her parents kept her invested and motivated, and the results, while potentially anomalous, are evidence of her persevering character as a student.

It’s hard to say how D or M would have fared in that situation, or conversely, how R would have in either of the former. Regardless, it seems that a positive, overtly literacy-supportive home life is not requisite for writing success.

If a student’s relationship with writing as a child necessarily doesn’t predetermine his or her success with writing later in adolescence, what does? There are other significant factors at play.

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