My sophomore year of high school, I cheated in English. Almost every day. On spelling tests, I wrote the list of words faintly on the desk and rubbed them off with my finger afterwards. I copied literary analysis papers from older students who wrote them the year before. I swapped answers to worksheets and perfected the art of being absent when there was a big exam. I hated the class.
But I didn’t hate writing and I didn’t hate reading. I loved them both.
Every single child in the class, regardless of perceived academic ability, has something important to say and they should be saying it.
On weekends I hardly left my bedroom. I published a zine that was home to my creative stories and album reviews. I scribbled poetry on the walls, quotes from Hunter S. Thompson and Dead Kennedys lyrics. Words were my world. In the midst of teenage angst, the writing was the bridge between my seemingly hellish existence and the hope of a brighter future. It was an expression. I had an article published in the newspaper in protest of closing down our local beloved punk-rock concert venue. A Letter to the Editor was printed in defence of an editorial on activist music and the final line read, “Rage Against the Machine is definitely not raging without a cause…” I felt that I had something to say, something to share. I believed I could make an impact.
In school, my words were useless. Their only value was to write prescribed thesis statements and correctly identify a theme in a book no one enjoyed or in some cases, even bothered to read. I decided not to take any more English classes beyond the requirement for graduation.
The irony of all this is that I’ve taught English for the past eight years.
I’ve found that my experience in high school is similar to many of my students; their interests feel disconnected and irrelevant to what they do in class even when it’s the exact same skill. I’ve tried countless approaches in an attempt to bridge the gap but I’ve only really found success with one: authenticity.
There inevitably is always discussion around the word authentic, exactly what does that mean? To me it means only one thing: it’s real to the author. Despite a relatively simplistic definition, in practice, this can be a difficult thing to accomplish.
Maybe we start by looking at the authenticity of ourselves.
I write an email because I need to communicate with my colleagues. I write blog posts because I believe my experiences may be helpful to others who are grappling with the same issues in education. I write my novel so that maybe my mom can read it someday, although I’m hopeful for a wider audience. All of these things matter deeply to me. Conversely, I was in a Book Club back in California that I absolutely loved. Writing a literary analysis paper afterwards seems like the most ridiculous endeavour and would probably kill any ounce of enjoyment I had for the experience.
Adults rarely engage in “unreal” tasks. So, why do we ask kids to?
Perhaps we feel that students should be exposed to a variety of writing, beyond just what they know how to do. I agree with this. But the key is finding ways for students to do this in authentic ways. Instead of writing a five-paragraph persuasive paper on whether the driving age should be changed, students learn about a local garden that is threatened to be closed by the government. They write letters and perform speeches to get the garden saved. If students are invested in the garden, their writing will be real, authentic. It will mean something to them.
Providing these opportunities for students means the teacher believes that every single child in the class, regardless of perceived academic ability, has something important to say and they should be saying it. When we honour the experiences of kids, when we believe in them, we refuse to settle for watching a student write a laborious essay that will only sit on our desk before being graded and handed back. It’s simply not good enough.
This is a re-blog post originally posted by Loni Bergqvist and published with kind permission. This article was originally published in 2015 and updated in 2019 by the UKEd Editorial team in accordance with website policy and technical changes.
You can read more from Loni by clicking here,