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Writing as Punishment

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A friend whose daughter is in seventh grade told me recently that her class was known to be very “rowdy” and difficult to control (his daughter is not part of the difficult group!). So, the teacher has instituted a system of punishment: when several students misbehave, the entire class has to write something like “I will never do X again” one hundred times. The whole class. One hundred times. Writing as punishment. Where have we heard this story before?

 

Research over the last fifty years has repeatedly shown that writing is affected by prior experience—in fact, that’s one of composition’s threshold concepts. My own informal research bears this out: for some twenty years, I asked every group I spoke with to call out their earliest memories of writing. And for twenty years, those early associations were very often about punishment: being made to write “I will never X again” over and over, being made to sit on their left hands if they were left-handed so they’d be forced to write “right,” or being ridiculed for something they had (or had not) written. For others, many people’s first memory of writing is learning to write their names—there’s something about seeing that name—YOU—inscribed on paper or a board or a stone that brings a sense of agency. Yet many of these memories are also marked by feeling that parents or grown-ups laughed (no doubt often kindly but not so to the child at the time) at these early attempts. So for many people, prior experience with writing had been negative, and this attitude and these feelings went with them as they went on in life so that they dreaded writing or felt inadequate when they had to write.

 

Fortunately, such prior experiences and associations can be mitigated, and that often happens as writers become more confident or encounter more positive experiences with writing, though the early experiences linger on. I believe that many of our students arrive with such negative prior experiences and that it’s in our classrooms that they can begin to move beyond these experiences and to build more positive associations, and hence gain more agency. And I know that many writing teachers talk with students about these issues, drawing them out on their early experiences and systematically helping them construct more successful encounters with writing.

 

How I wish I could speak with that seventh grade teacher and share the research evidence with her, that I could explain that writing should be used for celebration, for self-expression, and for creating knowledge—not for punishment. But I don’t have an opportunity to do that, and right now what I know is that my friend complained to the teacher about the assignment and especially about making students who were not misbehaving in any way share in the punishment. In response, the teacher said that this was a “tried and true method that works.” Tried for sure. But true? I doubt it. And while it may “work,” it works toward negative ends.

 

What I can and will do is spend some time with my friend’s seventh grade daughter, which will be a big treat for me. We will do some storytelling and writing together and I’ll do what I can to show her that writing is fun and meaningful, that it’s a way for her to voice her thoughts and share them with others. And I will be grateful for all the writing teachers across the country who are working with students and with other children they know to experience the gifts writing can bring.

 

Credit: Pixaby Image 2290628 by purpleshorts, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

2 Comments
Migrated Account

A very sad story but also unfortunately quite common. This story is as common as is the desire that some of us have to push back against such misdirected uses of writing. I try to de-traumatize, as it were, my writing students. I am not sure whether my story of my early experiences with writing-as-punishment adds more examples to this vignette or suggests a change of the course of action.

Here's my story: when I was in second grade, my teacher also used this method. Or maybe she used a twist on this method. Setting: I was kibbitzing with a friend. My teacher, whose name I still remember, told me to sit in a corner and to write a poem. I could not return to the group until after I wrote that poem. Well, I wrote that poem. I asked to re-enter the class. Perhaps, as a challenge or perhaps out of interest, the teacher asked me to read the poem aloud. I did. The teacher applauded.

I recite that poem even now (given the correct setting). Frankly, it's not a bad poem for a seven year old. Smiley Wink But more importantly, perhaps, I became a writer. That moment in my second-grade class marked me as someone who would grow into a writer whose creative writing, creative nonfiction writing, and criticism would one day be published. Was writing used as a form of punishment? Well, I guess, yes. (I am in no way advocating that writing be used as a form of punishment by the way.) Was this teacher establishing her own creative spin? Well, maybe yes too. Perhaps, like Mrs. Berman in 1971, elementary-school teachers should use writing to sustain and enliven their students? Perhaps, such a use of writing would not only bring back a passion for writing in the present but also a groundswell among our future writers. The poem? It is

Purple

Purple

a pencil, a piece of gum

Don't forget a plum

A flower, a car, sometimes

A ring, a stone

Something pretty when I'm alone

I love violet and purple too

I also love me and sometimes you.

--Miriamne Ara Krummel

Thank you for this great comment sharing your second grade experience and seven-year-old self's poem, "Purple," which I LOVE. BRAVA! I've memorized it and plan to remember it for a long time. The last line is absolutely priceless!

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.