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.