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Writing Instruction

Writing is hard.

In traditional curricula, there is a woefully inadequate approach to writing instruction. Students will spend months perfecting lines on a graph such that y = mx + b feels tattooed on the frontal cortex. Ask kids to outline an opinion piece or draft a poem? Whew. Let the rivers of anxiety flow.

We won’t use the Pythagorean theorem much in life, god willing. But, we will write. A lot. From critical works, opinion pieces, college & prep school admission essays, love letters, even wedding toasts (!), we will be assessed and remembered as a dynamo or dolt for the language we choose. So choose carefully. Be smart. Be clear. Be the dynamo.

Easier said than done, right? For many people, the exercise of writing is just torture. Sometimes that’s attributable to effort: The assignment was to write a three page essay. I wrote a three-page essay. I’m done. The fact is, if a student doesn’t take the time and requisite space to meaningfully revise a first draft, it’ll stay just that, a draft. Discipline matters. Learning to edit oneself matters. There are no shortcuts.

The most common issue, however, is less about effort and more about a creative logjam: The assignment was to write a three page essay. I can’t get out three sentences. I’ll never be done. Call it ‘writer’s block,’ but it’s just vulnerability, stress and fear that need to be tackled and tempered. College essays, for example, can be absolutely debilitating precisely because the entire application process is so weighty, stressful and exhausting. Teenagers — they’re just kids! — believe an entire life is built or broken on the substance and form of that personal statement. To those kids we say: Take a breath. We’ve got this.

To be sure, like any other form of instruction, a good writing teacher brings a spirit of play to the discipline. If a tutor sits beside a student and, wielding that creepy red pen, immediately begins marking up a draft, they might generate a strong document, but they will not create a strong writer. We need to open the channel, to introduce kids to their own ideas. Start with a movie review, a TikTok script, a journal entry, or song lyrics…whatever it takes to provide students with the freedom to cultivate their unique voices.

At rock bottom, we are in the business of creating writers, not writing. Our students learn to grab their audience by the collar: Listen up. Read on. I’m on to something.