I’m continuing to post papers that I included in my senior portfolio. This paper was written over the course of a year. Kind of. Brainstorming the paper took place over one semester, and writing the paper took another semester. It was for Responding to Student Writing, a class for English education double majors.
Walking into each new English classroom throughout my secondary school career meant a new teacher but little else. How we were given writing assignments was formulaic and predictable to us at the start of each school year. There was always the persuasive paper, the narrative, and the research paper which was sure to be the final paper of the year. That was the one all of us dreaded right through to the end. The fact that the research paper filled most of us with complete dread may have been a bit of a worry since a Stanford study found that research papers are one of the types of writing most commonly done by college students (Addison 156). The build up to something terrifying that I experienced in middle and high school classrooms was not the best way to think about those types of papers.
While I can recall doing some creative writing in fourth grade and one piece of creative writing in eighth grade, that is it. The only piece of writing I did that broke away from the essay mold in high school was one haiku that we wrote over one night sophomore year. Over the years, I came to associate school writing with formulaic writing where we followed sets of rules in order to achieve the grade we wanted. They were tedious papers that no one would choose to write in their free time, but getting through them was a right of passage for moving on the the next grade and graduating. They served no other purpose to us.
I was lucky in that I managed to retain an enjoyment of writing that I watched so many of my classmates lose. Even I did not entirely escape the feeling. As much as I enjoyed certain aspects of writing, motivating myself to write a lot of the papers we did was hard because they felt pointless in the grand scheme of things. I was not alone. Joanne Addison and Sharon James McGee found that almost half of high school students reported enjoying writing for their personal enjoyment even though they disliked school writing assignments (166). As the years went on, it felt like more and more of my classmates were writing to fit the rubric of a particular assignment more than to say anything worth saying. Even I failed to think about most of my papers as anything more than a means to get a grade.
The largest contributing factor to my continued enjoyment of writing that I can see is the fact that I was continuously writing outside of class. This was creative writing with no stakes other than pleasing myself. It allowed me to see some of the potential writing had outside of the classroom, and not many of my classmates got that viewpoint too. Despite the seemingly uncreative writing we were doing in class, I never lost the mindset that any type of writing relies heavily on creativity. That idea helped spur my thinking about how teaching writing would be different if students and teachers both looked at the writing done in class through the lens of creativity and the artistry that goes into the process.
W.E. Coles, Jr. said it well when he wrote, “The teaching of writing as writing is the teaching of writing as art” (111). Sometimes it is easy for students and even teachers to lose sight of that fact. Eventually, students stop seeing their writing assignments as art and only see them as assignments. If students saw their writing assignments as art, would they be more engaged? If students could draw comparisons between the writing process and the process a visual artist might go through to get a finished product, would it have an effect on their writing? If teachers were cognizant while responding to student writing of the fact that, on some level, a student’s paper is a creative work, would that have an effect on how they viewed the student’s efforts?
There may be limitations to this if a writing teacher does not have a teacher of another subject with whom to collaborate, but that does not mean that the writing teacher cannot pull in other subjects to the writing classroom on their own. Art, for instance, is a subject already closely connected to writing and can have an important place in the writing classroom.
One of the biggest roadblocks towards seeing academic writing as creative is the fact that almost all of the writing upper level students do in the classroom is nonfiction. Students reach a certain level in school where they are no longer given creative writing assignments, and a divide is created in their mind between creative writing and academic writing. One has creative in its name and leads to the literature they also read in class, but it is not what is expected of them in school. In their minds, they are only expected to do the “uncreative” writing in class. This writing relies on dry facts that apparently has no use for the creative.
While it is also important for students to realize that any sort of writing stems from creativity in some way, there is no doubt that the actual form of creative writing is typically overlooked in classrooms. Teachers, understandably, see other forms of writing as more important for the students to learn. While few people would contest students needing to learn academic writing, it can be a shame that students do not get more experience with creative writing while in school.
Patrick Bizzaro writes about poets, dramatists, etc. resisting creative writing becoming established in academics because they see it as “an evil to be avoided” (295), and maybe that is why creative writing is rarely focused on or maybe it is not. However, this means that many creative writers lack any formal training in their field (Bizzaro 295). Giving students some sort of exposure to creative writing in their English classes could be helpful. After all, the literature they are reading is most likely going to be literature that came out of creative writing.
Douglas Hesse calls for more emphasis on creative writing in composition studies and calls to mind the “commonalities” that all writing shares (49). This may be an idea that never even occurs to students, and being able to show students that all forms of writing are writing and therefore creative, could be helpful in changing students’ views as to the purpose of all of the writing they do in class. Just opening up a dialogue about creative writing could help students jumpstart their creativity. After all, as Jean-Pierre Changeux has hypothesized humans may have a predisposition for art (199). Francis L. Fennell also wrote that seeing “writing as an art should encourage us” because viewing writing as an art proves that it can be taught unlike what some believe (177). This is an important view for writing teachers since the idea that writing skills are innate and unteachable would present quite a problem for writing classes.
Joanne Addison and Sharon James McGee have written that there is “a declining state of literacy among high school and college students” (147). This fact is rather alarming, especially when most people today think of literacy as being better than it has ever been. If there is better access to information than ever before, then how can literacy be declining? Addison and McGee were two people who wondered that as well and studied trends in writing discussion in order to find a cause. What they found was not that writing teachers are terrible at their jobs. However, “writing in the disciplines and beyond the academy” has become more important for developing students’ writing skills (169), and these are factors that are not necessarily under the control of the writing teacher. They come to several recommendations in their article, and one of those is an interdisciplinary focus on writing that helps incorporate other fields of study (170). Such a focus would help give students a deeper understanding of the importance of writing to them.
A view of writing as art indicates how neuroscience can be incorporated into the writing classroom. The study of neuroscience has spawned a lot of research in recent years on the most effective ways of learning, and much of this research has focused on the role of creativity in learning.
In “Art and Neuroscience”, Jean-Pierre Changeux wrote that humans are predisposed to art (199). Brains did not change in order to accommodate art, but art instead comes naturally to humans (199). This implies that art is something that can come naturally to people at least to a certain extent. In fact, creativity may be connected to physical health. John Mirowsky and Catherine E. Ross wrote about the idea that “the creativity of one’s work or activities may be as important to health as the autonomy of it, and perhaps even more important” (385). The basis of their idea is that performing work that allows someone to be creative can be more beneficial than that person performing work that they are fully in charge of (386). They also mention, however, that some autonomy is necessary for something to be creative, which makes the two go hand-in-hand and is important to keep in mind in a classroom (386).
Researchers at the University of Greifswald conducted experiments that showed increased brain activity when participants used creativity while writing instead of just copying down what they were told (Zimmer). This increased brain activity is important for anyone who hopes to retain information and not just lose it after the next paper is completed or next test is taken. This research shows that the more creativity students use on any given writing assignment, the more they will be using their brain’s capabilities. The less creativity their writing assignments take, the more they can make it through an assignment without really working their brain. This is why art and creativity in the classroom has become an important topic among neuroscientists and teachers who want to use neuroscience techniques.
Presenting Writing as Art to Students
Students are used to thinking about their writing assignments as almost mechanical instead of creative. Even narrative pieces are sometimes presented to students in a way where they see them as essays, not stories, and students may be prone to thinking of essays as inherently uncreative while stories and fiction, which many students may mistake as the same thing, as being the only types of writing that can be creative. Getting students to realize that any form of writing requires creativity on their part is the first step towards them viewing their work as a type of art.
This can be something teachers suffer from as well. So much of the writing students do is laid out for both students and teachers. Students are given a formula for writing their papers that they are expected to stick to. Everyone knows about the five paragraph essay and what each paragraph is supposed to include. At times it can make papers feel more like plugging the missing information into a set formula than creating anything that could be deemed creative.
Students are often give the false notion that academic writing is almost inherently uncreative. They see it as a form where less exploration is available to them instead of one where they can explore with different ways to get their argument across. Something needs to happen to awaken students’ awareness that academic writing has it’s own sense of creativity just like creative writing. The similarities between the types of writing need to be emphasized in ways that will benefit students. After all, many students are likely to respond when they are consciously being creative than when they are writing to be as standardized as possible, which is how many students appear to view academic writing.
Students need an expanded view of their academic writing beyond the narrow one many of them have developed. They can be creative while still following certain standards. Correctness in grammar and mechanics should not impede creativity. It should be a way to express creativity. Too often students see grammar and mechanics as limiting when that is not how they should be viewed at all. Shifting their focus will give them a new outlook. Getting students writing at least partially for themselves is the only way to create new writers instead of people who only write when it is a necessity for school or work, although those are also important functions of writing. It has been found that “two-thirds of salaried employees in large American companies” have responsibilities that involve writing (Addison 151). Preparing students for those responsibilities is also incredibly important, since not having the appropriate level of writing skills can prevent promotions and about three billion dollars a year is spent trying to teach employees to write (Addison 151), but so is their own engagement is what they are being asked to write.
There are reasons why concepts such as the five paragraph essay become such a huge deal in the classroom. Students need to learn different types of writing, and having a structured idea of what they need to accomplish in a paper provides a starting point for that. Having a very structured starting point for creating a paper is what many beginning writers need. However, students need to eventually feel like they have complete control over what they are writing if they are going to grow as writers. They have to feel like they have agency over the contents of their papers, or they’re never going to be able to do much writing outside of heavily structured classroom papers. In other words, they need to be taught how to write more like how they would be taught art in an art classroom.
After all, there was a time when the arts were not separated into different fields like they are today. They were “integrated with each other and life” and had a “wholeness and interfunctionality” (Anderson 10). Keeping the idea that the different art fields all have much in common can change how the teaching of them all is viewed. Anderson is not alone either in thinking about what the modern separation of the arts into fields means. Irwin and Reynolds wrote about teaching while “making connections between and among the visual arts and other subject areas” (13). While this is different than just viewing writing as a type of art, it does help shed light on how connected different disciplines can be, especially when each discipline centers around a form of art.
There are certain things an artist has to do in order to wind up with a completed painting, but most art students know that they have creative control over what exactly that finished painting looks like. Writing students need that same sort of mindset towards their papers. There are certain rules that need to be followed to achieve the intended type of paper, but they are the ones who have control over what and how that paper accomplishes what it needs to accomplish. In the end, it is their paper, not the teacher, and that may be something both students and teachers forget without realizing it.
Many students would not think to make a connection between the writing they are doing in class and art. Some of them may not think of any sort of writing as art because they have never really heard the term “art” used when discussing writing. Denise Cassano had her students analyze a painting in order to hone their creative writing skills. Just doing that and connecting it to a piece of literature is a good start for getting your students thinking about possible connections between writing and visual art.
If teachers keep in mind that each student paper is a work of art created by that student, they will be better able to keep that in mind. That is not to say that student papers are going to be masterpieces that are too perfect to be critiqued. No one would ever believe that. Few art students are creating pieces that are worthy of being hung in the Louvre. Still, having that sort of mindset can help give a bit more control over to the student. When a paper is looked at as art, it is more likely to also be looked at as a way to express oneself. Students do not always think of their academic papers the same way. They are not doing it for expression. They’re doing it for a grade. A student does not typically choose a topic they are very passionate about, or if they do, it is because it happens to go along with the assignment, not because they had a particular desire to write about it. They are more concerned with writing what they think should go into a paper and nothing more, which is a mindset that can make any paper dull. Instead, if students look at a paper as art, they may focus more on the ability to explore that writing gives them and write about their topics in a more engaged way that focuses on expressing their own thoughts on the subject.
A student will get far more out of a paper that they feel is their own and something that they have worked hard to create than one that was formulaic and created only for a teacher. Students who know how to write papers only under incredibly strict guidelines will only be able to go so far with writing once they are out of high school. Teachers give students assignments in the hope that one day students will be able to write on their own without any sort of assignment. There will not be a rubric for the writing students do after college. There may not even be a strict form that they must follow. It will all be on them to determine what the paper needs and how to do that.
How does this tie in with viewing student writing as art? I think art students always have a sense of ownership over their artwork that not all writing students experience. Art done by students may be hung up for others to admire while the only people who are likely to see a student’s paper are the student and people who will critique it. This alone could create a sense of the writing not being all that important in the grand scheme of things. The art students create may be worthy of admiration even if it is not a masterpiece, but the writing is not.
Going even further than that, art students make a number of artistic decisions that come purely from the knowledge that they need to make a piece the best it can possibly be. Writing students, on the other hand, are more concerned with meeting the requirements for a paper than making decisions that will lead to the best paper possible. Toby Fulwiler writes about how teaching writing is synonymous with teaching a liberal art and reminds readers that “learning to write is the most direct way of learning to reflect” (9-10). Learning how to write thrives on “critical and creative engagement” which will only be achieved by students who feel that they can exercise control over their papers and make them their own (Fulwiler 10). Students who feel their writing lacks creativity, are going to be disengaged and internalize less about writing.
Imagine an art classroom where students are given a rubric for a painting they are meant to paint. This rubric turns the painting into little more than a paint-by-numbers. The student is not going to feel like their work is actually theirs when all they have done is fill in the correct colors wherever they were told to. As the Center for Best Practices in Early Childhood lays out, “Children do not need preprinted pictures to trace and color” (“Relationship”). Allowing them to create their own art is much more valuable. In order for the painting to be worth anything to them, both personally and educationally, they have to decide what colors go where for themselves. A certain amount of guidance is also necessary, but they have to learn what leads to a great painting by experimenting with the process themselves.
Paint-by-numbers assignments are not going to be enough to encourage art students to be artists. They may be useful as some sort of start, but eventually the lack of creativity will just make them tedious and nothing more worthwhile. Writing will be the same way for students. Students have to use their creativity or they will not be writers, not in the classroom and certainly not out of it.
Methods for Teaching Writing as Art
Neuroscience is getting a lot of attention in the education community lately because understanding how the brain works is sure to lead to the development of education techniques that are effective. Those well-versed in neuroscience are very aware of how ineffective a paint-by-numbers assignment would be. Creativity happens to be a big deal in neuroscience, and writing teachers are in a prime position to capitalize on it. When students are creative, their brains are going through a “dynamic interplay of these large-scale networks” (Kauffman). This means that students are using more parts of their brain and that these parts are interacting with each other, not working alone. Even someone who is not a neuroscientist can guess that getting students to use as much of their brain as possible is a good thing. An emphasis on the creativity of writing is a surefire way to do this.
To emphasize how important it is to stimulate a student’s creativity in their writing, consider a study done by the University of Greifswald. This study aimed to measure the brain activity of writers both when just copying text and while writing creatively. Not only did they measure more brain activity during creative writing than during copying, but more areas of the brain were involved as well (Zimmer). Hopefully, your students will always be doing more than just copying texts, but if writing assignments are not emphasizing creativity as much as they can, then students still are not using as much of their brain as they can, and by extension, are not making as many connections as is possible for them.
That being said, repetition is also important according to neuroscience. Once information is in the brain, it “needs to be activated multiple times” in order to “increase its durability” (Willis). This concept helps support the practice of having students write the same sorts of papers throughout the years, but it is important to keep this concept in mind along with the concept of creativity as an important aspect of learning. The most effective method here would seem to be combining both creativity and repetition. Teachers can find ways for students to experience different types of writing multiple times while still keeping creativity involved.
Brainstorming activities may be one way to really help students realize the creative aspects of writing. There are many ways to use visual aids in brainstorming that will help show students the connection that writing has to art. Exploring ways to use visual art, such as drawings, for brainstorming may help students see their writing in an entirely different light. It helps fit writing and visual art alongside each other and helps create more connections in the student’s mind. The students will have to make connections with the visuals as well as text in their brains, which will require them to use different parts of their brains than they would through text alone.
Just exploring graphic novels may produce similar effects as students again are able to see writing being used along with another form of art. Going a step further, students could be asked create their own comic. Creating some form visual art that also tells the same story as their words helps show that the two art forms are closely entwined. Afterwards, students can see writing as a form of art in a way they perhaps had not before. Such a project could cause them to continue to view they’re writing in similar ways. It could be a natural development to begin exploring how they could create images through words alone and no drawings. It may seem more setting of creative writing, but potentially, students could expand the understanding to academic writing.
In fact, getting students to think about academic papers using visual art could be a great way to get them engaged while showing connections between the fields. Propaganda could be a great example of the way visual arts can be used for the same purpose as persuasive papers, and students can see how different persuasive techniques are also used visually. Students may have an easier time seeing visual propaganda as art despite its uses than they would a persuasive paper on the same topic. That is just one method of ways to open up a dialogue about writing, even academic writing, as art to students. Art of wildlife or landscapes or scientific models can all relate back to some of the options students would have for research papers.
Getting students thinking about writing as a form of art towards the beginning of the year or semester could help a lot with continuing that mindset for the rest of the year, even if the visual is not brought into every writing assignment they do throughout the year. If students are thinking of their papers almost as an art project, then they may feel less constricted and more at ease in exploring what they can do with their writing. The papers they turn in will be products they are excited to share with the world because they are an expression of the students and what they think rather than something written down to adhere to rules and please a teacher, nothing more.
Students are going to be aware that their paper will be graded and to write with that in mind. It has been strongly ingrained in them to expect that outcome, but the writing students, in particular, need to develop the courage to keep moving forward with their writing and develop their skills further instead of quitting once they have achieved the grade they wanted or will settle for. An art student might have been fine with coloring books when she was young, but as she goes through art classes, she has to be willing to continuously develop skills that allow her to create unique works of her own, not just filling in the outlines of someone else’s.
Writing is the same way. Students have to be given ownership and creative control of what goes into their papers if they are going to take away anything that will help them in the long run. They have to feel like they are actually learning their own writing process and creating works of worth and not just following an expected format where they fill in the blanks and have a paper. Teaching them to write to an assignment may get them through school, but it may not be much help afterwards when they have no assignments to follow and instead must create their own “assignments” and “rubrics” for themselves. That is when the true test of whether or not they learned to write will come, and their own sense of creativity will play a huge role. Emphasizing that creativity while they are in school will help prepare them. Maybe then they will feel confident enough to call themselves writers.
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