The Power of Personal Writing--Do You Make Time for it In Your Classroom?


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                   *(I'll share below why I included this quote.)
     I wanted to take just a moment to write about the power of personal writing.  I don't see enough time for this type of writing being put aside in our classrooms K-12.  Yet, giving students this time to explore and figure out the power that personal writing might have in their lives can be truly life-changing.
     All good teachers think a lot about the life-changing experiences we share with our students.  We know the power of reading for both personal and academic reasons.  We know the power of academic writing and writing in general as students make their way into the world.  But, do we realize the power of personal writing and how impactful it can be?  Do we take "time out" of the traditional curriculum to allow students to explore their thoughts and feelings on paper?  I know, I know, we are all in a massive time crunch every day.  But, if we don't help students with their social and emotional growth; if they don't grow up to be successful adults in that realm, beyond the academic, what good has all of our teaching been? 
     We have an epidemic of anxiety and depression among our young people.  We have students taking their own lives.  I believe we ARE giving more time to mental health and to mindfulness in educational settings.  I wish we would include personal writing as a kind of meditation, as well. 
     I've been divorced multiple times.  I've had a lot of trauma that isn't fun to talk about.  I continue to struggle with my past, my present, the way the world is, hearing some of the sad stories of my students' lives, and even talking about any of this because there is so much more trauma, so much more disaster and ruin in the world.  I often think, what right do I have to share my struggle when others are struggling so much more?
     In the end, though, my struggle has led me to know the power of personal writing.  It was a junior high school teacher who really started me along the path.  She had us do what would be considered nowadays 'frivolous writing,' like writing down the lyrics to a song that was meaningful to us, composing stories just for fun and exploring free verse poetry.  We kept a portfolio of our work.  She responded so positively to what I'd shared--she responded to my content, to my thoughts and feelings.  I treasured that construction paper piece folded in half; that tattered  'writing portfolio.'  I treasured her comments.  I don't believe any of it was shared at parent conferences and yes, it may have been used for a grade--I simply don't remember.  I DO remember how she made me feel--like my thoughts and feelings mattered and that I was a writer with some skill.  I don't remember writing anything personal after that--I believe that occurred in 7th grade.  I DO remember writing essays and more essays.  All the essay writing certainly improved my ability to communicate and to write and to make my mark in the academic world.  However, it's the personal writing that has saved me all these years. 
     I think I mentioned in my last post that I've been writing poetry since my early 20s.  This all started due to a fledgling and quickly failing marriage.  I found if I sat down with a notebook, pencil in hand, and just waited quietly, my feelings would start to flood the page.  The feelings took the form of poetry.  After writing, I was tired, but satisfied.  My feelings were out--right there on the paper--concrete.  I could see them, touch them, revisit them, re-examine them, if I chose to do so.  My mind felt relief.  My spirit calmed down. 
     In times of severe trouble, I stopped writing.  Couldn't bring myself to get the notebook out and stare down at the empty page.  Yet, research shows that simple journal writing can help people who are feeling depressed or who have other mental health or emotional issues.  I knew this fact then.  Sometimes the place is too dark and the lights turn off on the writing, as well. 
     Funny I'm writing this because due to my last two years of chronic pain from a car accident (described in my last post,) I hadn't been writing much until recently.  Same story, different trauma.  So much pain, I turned away from the writing.  Suddenly, though, it all comes back to me every time, like a close friend who's been out of the country on extended leave.  I realize I'm doing myself (and my family) a disservice by NOT writing, and I pick up the pen again.  And, I'm always happy when I do.
     One of my school missions this year is to engage students in more informal writing across the curriculum.  That is, writing that is thinking on paper.  Just like engineers work out problems with pencil in hand, just like inventors do, scientists do, mathematicians do.  These thoughts conjure up images from the films 'Hidden Figures,' 'Apollo 13' and 'Good Will Hunting.'  These are the kinds of writings I'm referring to: when one struggles to find answers by puzzling things through on the page (or, in these cases, on the chalkboard).  Research shows our brains hyper-focus when we write.  This allows for the generative process to happen.  One thought leads to another, then another.  More questions and clarifications surface as we work ideas on paper.  There is HUGE power in this. When I engage in this form of writing, I always discover things I didn't know were there or answers to problems I'm struggling with.  This is another type of writing that is truly impactful.
Photo attribution: https://www.greensboro.com/blogs/allen-johnson-more-hidden-figures-connections-to-greensboro-revealed/article_1c705a4e-758b-5e8f-b576-f07e38f3a7e5.html  (Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson in the movie Hidden Figures)




Photo attribution:  https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/01/hidden-figures-and-the-appeal-of-math-in-an-age-of-inequality/513434/   Hidden Figures, Twentieth Century Fox


Photo Attribution: https://infowetrust.com/hollywood-dataviz/  Movie:  Apollo 13


Photo attribution: HuffPost UK  Movie: Good Will Hunting

   

      But, I digress from my main focus here--personal writing--leaving the curriculum behind, honoring time for students to address their personal needs on paper.  I'm sure personal writing doesn't appeal to everyone, but in our classrooms, if we devote time to it then allow students time to share with us and/or their peers, if they choose, we will discover many students will find the process helpful and, indeed, therapeutic.  I have no doubt of that. 
     I had a second grade student way back near the beginning of my career that had a baby sister who was dying of cancer.  I gave my students time to write personal stories and poems and this little girl found huge relief in writing about her sister, the family trips to the hospital, the confusion, the not knowing.  She even wrote and published a non-fiction book she titled: "My Baby Sister Has Cancer." Though the baby received treatment, she died during that school year.  I will never forget how this child's parents came to me at the end of the year to thank me.  They said, "Chandra** is dealing better with this tragedy than anyone else in the family (they had five other children ranging in ages).  We know it's because of all the writing she's been doing.  We owe that to you."  That hit me hard, and it has stayed with me since, affecting how I've fashioned my classroom schedule in my thirty years of teaching.  The experience spoke to me on another personal level, because I was already struggling in my marriage and writing up a storm to find some relief. 
     I wish more writers, regular everyday people, would come forward with their personal stories of how writing has helped them cope throughout their lives.  I wish, too, more teachers would explore this use of time, for what could be more important than imparting skills to students to help them successfully navigate this tumultuous world?
   I'll end with a personal poem (this one is about 16 years old--I looked for something current, but I simply can't bring myself to post one of those here--still too hard--this type of vulnerability on my blog or in public anywhere is new to me).   Thanks for reading. 

*The Einstein quote--though this is not a true application of the quote, when I read it this morning, it reminded me of how I sit in silence with my notebook and all the thoughts come.  It's like taking that simple silent pause from our busy world to meditate--to come to new understandings and to find some peace.  Personal writing, silent, in my room--has the same affect.
**This is a pseudonym, of course.
------------------------------------------------
Your smile
carries me, cradles me
Your laugh
slays me
lays me flat.
I laugh beside you
like we used to.
Remembering,
I long for now.
You are in a better place,
so am I.
What holds you back?
Us, under the sparkling sky
with the moon just right?
What holds you back
from this raw
this rare
this bond we share?
What ties your lips,
your tongue,
your hands?
I want to understand.
Instead, you go numb
silence your tongue
get in your car
and drive away.
I’m withered,
weathered
and left with questions
I won’t voice.
Throat lumps.
Heart thumps.
You’re gone again.






2 comments

  1. Inspiring thoughts, Janiel, my strong, brave friend. I became a better teacher, many years ago, because of knowing you and your passion for teaching, your passion for children. Can’t believe you’ve been at it for thirty years now!

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    Replies
    1. Thank you dearly. I don't feel strong or brave today. It's been a tough one and a tough, tough start to the school year. My heart is heavy for our students. I hope this post helps someone. Much love to you, Barb!

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