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Voices: Giving students the right to write

Retired teacher Kathy King-Dickman says students can be encouraged to find real-world meaning in the written word through persuasive writing. (A similar version of this article appeared in the DSC Way Blog and portions of it appeared in The California Reader.)

“Mrs. D., it’s not fair that we only have three minutes between passing periods!”

“I agree. Write a persuasive letter about that and you can send it to the school board.”

“Mrs. D., it’s not fair that they called off our middle school ball game so the high school could play.”

“I agree. Why don’t you write a letter to the athletic director about that?”

“Mrs. D., it’s not fair that you let Emily turn in her assignment late and no one else.”

“Oh Laura, you are so right. I think you have finally found your topic for your persuasive essay!”

Many days my writing class began with the sounds of middle school students complaining about their lot in life and my response to write about it, so it wasn’t surprising when our principal brought us the following letter the day after school began in 2010:

Dear Mrs. Hashbarger: I’m writing this letter to tell you how bad this first day of middle school felt to me. I felt like all I did today was listen to the teachers give us rules upon rules, and the strange thing was they didn’t feel like rules; they felt like threats. Let me tell you what I heard all day:

  • If  I talk in class, I’ll get blue slips and warnings
  • If  I’m even a few minutes late for class once, I immediately have to go to a 30 minute detention
  • If  I laugh about anything not school related, it’s back to blue slips and warnings

I hoped that today would be a fun day seeing friends and getting ready to start the school year. My friends at OMS had a barbecue that the teachers put on for them and what did we have? Our teachers threatening us to follow the rules, and they didn’t just do this for an hour or so, they did it for the whole day.

This letter closed with a powerful ending, convincing our entire staff to back off from the rules that we had been so determined to implement. This was from a seventh-grader who earned an outstanding score on the Colorado state mandated writing test.

Recently, I was delighted to read this passage in Pathways to the Common Core:

Think of any cause that matters to you. Is it global warming? The growing gap between the rich and the poor? Or violence in video games? Whatever the cause, you probably believe that the world would be a better place if people who care about that cause had the courage and the literacy skills to make their views heard. If young people grow up learning to participate in logical, reasoned, evidenced-based arguments, this will mean that they are given a voice. Our democracy is dependent on educated, concerned citizenry, exercising the right to be heard.

It seems that the Common Core State Standards have seen the power in argument writing to instill a voice in writers of all ages – calling it “opinion writing” in kindergarten through fifth grade and “argument” thereafter (CCSS writing standard one).  Persuasive essays are one way in which students can express their voices while meeting standard one.

Whether it comes from a second-grader pleading for a later bed time or a ninth-grader asking the world to not pollute, students feel the power in exercising their right to write.

Donald Graves and Penny Kittle (2005) say that essays “…convince the reader he’d better get off his butt and get busy doing what the writer wants.” Adolescents  love learning that writing is one way in which they can appropriately do what Graves and Kittle suggest.

However, if we want students to invest fully in this genre of writing, we need to encourage them to write about topics that matter dearly to them and not those chosen by their teachers. Two years ago I heard a student named Marley shout, “Yes. I have been waiting all year!” amidst the cheers of his peers when I announced that it was time to start our persuasive unit. I do not remember ever feeling excited about writing an essay in all of my years of school. Do you?

Not only did this type of writing motivate students to write, it helped the entire Moffat Middle school earn the Governor’s Distinguished Improvement Award for 2010 and 2012 as well as a  Center of Excellence Award in 2011.

What’s not fair? Neglecting to teach students how to exercise their powerful voices in argumentative writing. That, my fellow teachers, is not fair.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.