As I watched my daughter in her tumbling class a couple weeks ago, I couldn’t help but eavesdrop on a conversation —because it was happening right next to me—between the mom sitting beside me and another mother. They were bemoaning the obstinate attitudes of their preteen girls, swapping ideas about how best to whip them into shape. The woman beside me—clearly an elementary school teacher (based on the pile of papers on her lap and the red pen in her hand) shared with her friend her own foolproof method for keeping her back-talking daughter in line: “I make her go in her room and write me sentences… ‘I will not talk back to my mother.’”
“Oooh, that’s a good idea!” her friend said. “I should try that!”
“Yes,” my neighbor said, sagely nodding her head. “She comes out of her room with a sore hand. It really works!”
And then I watched her go back to grading the work of young people, and I visibly shivered in my seat. I was outraged, and I hope you wise readers are too by this sad story.
As a freelance writer and editor for the past 12 years and a first-year writing instructor at the University of Nevada, I’m obviously a lover—a LOVER—of the written word. Words are special. Words are gold. It’s up to me to shape the young minds who come into my freshman English classes, to convince them to express themselves, to make themselves vulnerable on the page, to want to explore details and learn and grow and be better writers. I want them to read, to experience the sheer pleasure of sitting down with a big fat book.
Words should never, ever, ever, EVER be used as a punishment.
I see this all too often. I myself was told to write, “I will not chew gum in the classroom” in high school. In my own classes at UNR, I ask my students at the start of each semester to tell me, by a show of hands, who among them were given writing as punishments, and invariably at least half the students in class raise their hands. And about that many of them also complain they don’t like to write. Is it any wonder?
We have friends who, about a year ago, struggled when their young son, only in kindergarten at the time, was punished for bad playground behavior, at a very upscale local private academy, by writing sentences. How does a preschool/kindergarten reconcile the teaching of writing and reading to a young person with then using that new, tender skill to punish him on the same day?
Shame on them.
Is it any wonder that we English teachers, and that we people in the business world trying to help people communicate effectively, are constantly told, “I can’t write. I hate to write,” when those same people were also punished for tardiness, or for chewing gum, or for talking back, or for any other small infraction, by being forced to write an essay or to copy pages out of the dictionary? Is it any wonder we can’t get kids to feel enthusiastic about reading and writing when that very thing will be used against them at some point?
When they are being sent the message that WRITING IS PUNISHMENT, why would they be encouraged to be better at it, or even to try it?
Just so you know, this is not some new-age way of thinking. Writing sentences and essays as punishment may be as old as the hills, and there are a lot of old-schoolers out there who argue its merit, but condemnation of it is old, too. Even back in 1984, the National Council of Teachers of English published a position statement entitled “Resolution on Condemning the Use of Writing as Punishment.” Drawing upon years of research findings, the NCTE said:
“Using writing for punishment distorts the principles and defeats the purposes of instruction in this important life skill and causes students to dislike an activity necessary to their intellectual development and career success. Be it therefore resolved that the National Council of Teachers of English condemn punitive writing assignments; that NCTE discourage teachers, administrators, and others from making a punishment of such writing as copywork, sentence repetition, original paragraphs and themes, and other assignments which inhibit desired attitudes and essential communication skills…”
So why are we still having this problem? I’ll tell you why: because it’s easy. It keeps students quiet and focused on a task. It seems humane. It eliminates the need to shout. It creates the illusion that work and learning are still happening. But in fact teachers are undoing all their instruction by quietly sending the message that this task is to be dreaded as much as any other punishment—cleaning up trash, for instance. And who wants to be good at picking up trash?
We wouldn’t take this tack with anything else we want students to learn to like—eating vegetables for instance, or doing math problems. You wouldn’t assign a chemistry lab as punishment. You wouldn’t tell your child to write thank you notes as punishment, or to talk to grandma on the phone, or to ride a bike or eat a salad. Because you want your child to have pleasurable associations with those things, to develop healthy, polite, responsible lifelong habits.
Many say there is a correlation between punitive writing and the fact that in its 2011 report on writing, the National Assessment of Educational Progress said that only a measly 24% of students in 8th through 12th grades were proficient in writing, and only 3% were advanced. Surely what we’ve been doing doesn’t work.
Meanwhile, a 2015 Pew Research Center report found that in a survey of American employers of the 10 skills they believe are most important for children to succeed, the skill topping the list, at 90%, was communication, followed by reading. Writing placed fifth. Children must master these skills to be successful in life, and it’s our job to foster that learning.
I’m so fortunate that when I was a child, reading and writing were rewards—the things I got to do when I had been good, when I had free time I had earned. I was encouraged by my parents (my dad himself a writer) and some wonderful teachers to follow my ideas, to play with poetry, to make cards and letters and handmade books. My work was posted prominently for all to see and celebrated. It’s no mystery that I chose it as my profession.
Now, I am thrilled to see my daughter being the same way. She will read for 30 minutes every morning, stealing time to herself while sitting on the toilet, swinging her legs until her feet fall asleep, or devouring a few pages in the car on the ride to school. She refuses to pick out birthday cards, preferring instead to make them by hand. She writes letters, makes lists. She’s forming her own book club. Of course, we encourage this at home, but also her wonderful teachers have encouraged her writing, making freewrites a reward for good behavior, a special time to be earned and celebrated, and in which their technical merits aren’t as important as the writing, the imaginative work happening behind it. Surely her excellent scores in reading and writing in school, and her love of these things, aren’t mere coincidence.
On a recent day in which I volunteered, the class was given 45 minutes of free writing time, and they cheered when it was given and groaned when it was over. The teacher shared with me that fellow teachers wonder how she gets them to love writing so much, because their students hate it. But the truth is that unfortunately it’s used too often as a punishment, or it’s viewed as grunt work and not as a joyous occasion for self-expression.
Imagine, though, what can happen when we make writing as much of a reward as junk food, or as play time. Earning it for being good, not being punished with it for bad behavior.
These things MATTER. Our approach to writing matters to our kids. Just as we model healthy eating and good hygiene and good manners to our kids, our attitudes and actions surrounding reading and writing are models for our children. Do they see us doing these things and loving them? Or do we groan when faced with them? Would you hand a child a carrot and then complain how awful carrots are? Would you make your kids eat carrots as punishment for being bad?
No. So don’t do it with writing.
Make writing and reading into rewards, special times in which to explore worlds and ideas. And ask your child’s teacher to do the same. If your child is made to write as a form of punishment, speak up. Take issue with it. Argue that the NCTE and scads of experts side with you, and that they’ll have to find some other way to exercise discipline. Fight for your child’s right to love writing.