National Day on Writing: Possibilities, Alternative Conversations, Implications

I’m still abuzz from the inspirational efforts of writing/ELA students, teachers, and others that I heard about on the National Day on Writing, and that I’ve seen in the National Gallery of Writing. If you haven’t checked it out, you must! Of course, I highly recommend the CWPA Gallery… but there are literally thousands of other submissions that are just mind-blowing. We had an amazing NDoW celebration on my campus, and I was completely jazzed to learn about the events and activities taking place in K-16 schools nationwide.

Perusing the submissions in the Gallery literally gives me shivers. It’s an amazing testimony to the variety of writing that people do everyday; to the role that writing plays in the lives of people young and old; to the incredible creativity and ability that people bring to writing situations and tasks.

I felt the same way at my campus’s celebration of NDoW – over 1,700 students at my open-access institution participated in an amazing day of activities. Students came in saying, “I can only stay like 30 minutes… is that okay?” And an hour (or more) later, they were still here – making erasure poems, creating PEOPs, writing six-word memoirs, and uploading their fantastic work to the EMU Gallery.

I want to share just two submissions from one of the amazing activities included in my campus’s local NDoW celebration. These come from contributors to WritingCorps, a writing version of the StoryCorps project. Students were invited to write about why, how, when, and where they write. Many of these were signed; the two here were submitted anonymously. One writer said:

From my experience, writing is an element of surprise. someone may find out so many things about themselves in writing a biography or a story. After I'm done writing a paper, I am amazed at the manner in which that I was able to express myself. For some reason the mind finds it easier to free the full content of itself on paper. Things come out the way you want them too when writing, contrary to when you are speaking. sometimes speaking can deceive us and make us appear as someone that we really are not, but in writing not only is it easier to be yourself, you can also be anyone you want to be it's more fun.

Another one wrote:

It doesn't take much time for me to answer why I write--I write because I like being in power in my surroundings.  Using words means that I have to understand how their implications and uses in society.  So I interact with words--writing, speaking, reading, singing--to stay active with my presence.  I want to define how this society will represent me; writing means I control those words.  I write to declare myself!  Look, I am right here. 

I put the passion in these responses, the incredible energy and enthusiasm generated by the National Day on Writing, and the remarkable work in the National Gallery side-by-side with another effort to shape conceptualizations of writing, the Common Core State Standards Initiative. October 21 is (or, depending on when you’re reading this, was) the last day for submitting comments on these standards, which have the potential to dramatically narrow the range of writing experiences that students have in school.

While these standards do include mention of purpose and audience, they emphasize two kinds of writing: argumentative and informative (and include a sidebar on a third, descriptive). And there is no sense of what years of research demonstrates repeatedly: Qualities of “good writing” are context-specific. Good writers understand that writing takes many forms, so they know how to analyze the expectations of their audiences, identify what they already know about how to meet those expectations, and develop the strategies and skills that they don’t know in order to do so. As they engage in this work, good writers also reflect on their own processes in order to build on what they know, and they learn with and from other writers. None of these important elements are included in the Common Core Standards.

But there’s something else missing from the Common Core Standards, too – something that I saw, felt, and continue to feel after the National Day on Writing. That’s a willingness to have writing take us to new places; to use writing to explore different worlds; to see writing as a way to make a place for ourselves and others. It’s why I write (at least, it’s why I write sometimes!) – and I bet it’s why others of us do, as well.

I’ve only just scratched the surface of the National Gallery – but I have read and listened to/watched every submission in my local gallery (EMU Writes). None of the moving, amazing work that students submitted to that gallery would be validated by the Common Core Standards as “legitimate” or “good” writing – it would not, in other words, be deemed as something that will prepare students for college or career in the estimation of these standards. But I would argue that it is exactly this kind of work that will help students develop on their existing abilities to become precisely the kind of writers – and thinkers, and citizens – that will help us move into this 21st  century. That, after all, is what the National Day on and National Gallery of Writing are all about – showcasing 21st  century literacies.

I submitted a comment on the Common Core Standards (which I will be happy to share with anyone who is interested [e-mail me!]) on what I believe would be more productive and positive standards that would help students be successful -- in college and beyond. And while the comment period for these standards may have closed, we all will have opportunities to comment on movements to narrow, squeeze, and trim writing into ever-smaller boxes.

As CWPA members, we need to continue to show what we know: Writing is many things, and plays many roles in the lives of those who write. To become “good writers,” students need opportunities to practice and create a variety of written genres; receive feedback on those genres from peers, instructors, and others; develop successful processes for writing; and find - for themselves - all that writing can do.