Published in the October 23, 2014 Santa Maria Times.
I have written about the importance of writing and how local students are often lacking in writing skills.
Numerous studies have been done, much time and effort spent trying to determine how students can improve in this subject, which is so critical to their future success.
In 2003, the National Commission on Writing called for “a writing revolution” in American education. Studies suggest better training for teachers, more emphasis on writing in the lower grades, and requiring more writing in high school and college, with students’ writing vigorously edited.
These are all good ideas. But after nearly two decades as a writing teacher at Allan Hancock College, I have another suggestion, one I have not seen addressed in any of the studies — give students topics they are genuinely interested in or have strong feeling about, and the quality of their writing will improve dramatically.
I have seen it over and over. When a student’s assignment is drudgery to them, the interest they show and the work they do reflects that. But provide them with an opportunity to write about something that interests them, or give them a chance to describe a crucial event in their lives, and their enthusiasm shines through like a bright light.
“Good writing comes from the heart,” a student of mine once wrote, and truer words were never spoken.
“I love that our essays were open and we could write about something we wanted to write about,” said another.
A student who had been struggling with writing once wrote an essay on his hobby, dragsters and funny cars. Providing a brief history of the sport, he explained how dragsters and funny cars evolved after World War II, and how funny cars got their name — with their large rear tires and extended front fenders they looked funny.
“Dragster engines were installed and the fun began. Tires smoking and running any direction but straight. Funny car or top-fuel dragster, the spectator is guaranteed a thrill. Wow, what a ride!”
Writing can be a cathartic exercise, enabling someone to expel their demons. A student wrote a research paper on the horrors of methamphetamine addiction, using her own son’s story and the impact his addiction had on her family as the focal point.
“He became addicted when he was 17. He started to hallucinate that there were things flying in the air. Our family deals with this on a daily basis,” she wrote.
Another student wrote about his loss of innocence. In an essay titled, “The Loss of Invincibility,” he described how, as students at a university in San Diego, he and a friend crossed the border into Tijuana, their pockets full of counterfeit American money they had printed themselves.
“I felt like nothing and nobody could ever do me much harm. That was about to change.”
Their ruse was quickly discovered and they found themselves in a Tijuana jail. The American Embassy informed them they were facing as much as 24 years in Mexico City Prison. A relative paid a $14,000 bribe to get them released. They were expelled from school and forbidden to come to Mexico ever again.
“Needless to say, my feelings of being invulnerable were dashed. One dumb decision and my dreams were crushed,” he wrote.
Students will not always have the luxury of choosing what their assignments will be. But I am convinced that as they are learning to write, giving them the opportunity to write about subjects they have true feelings for will assist in the process and make them better writers.
Good writing truly does come from the heart.
Mark James Miller, President, Part-Time Faculty Association of Allan Hancock College, CFT Local 6185, Santa Maria, CA