Writing to Learn

In my research on writing-to-learn, I found the following explanation from Colorado State University. 

Generally, writing-to-learn activities are short, impromptu, or otherwise informal, and low-stakes writing tasks that help students think through key concepts or ideas presented in a course. Often, these writing tasks are limited to less than five minutes of class time or are assigned as brief, out-of-class assignments.

That’s not what I’m talking about here.

Instead, consider writing-to-learn, for the purposes of this article, as a longer, sustained process by which a writer probes the mind in the dark and musty places to gain insight about the human condition and the self.

Philosophical Ramblings

Elsewhere, I have written, “Writers are drawn to writing to explore their lives and their world view, but accessing the part of the mind that makes it possible to explore to the depths of one’s soul is often just too much.” That is true, and that is why so much writing falls flat.

Writing is hard. Writing-to-learn is harder. It requires the writer to acknowledge something: cognitive dissonance, conflict, mistakes made, pain – and committed writers are often depressed as a result. From those acknowledgements, themes emerge, as does greater understanding, but sometimes at a considerable cost. Going deep to discover what you believe and think can be brutal.

Look, we are not born with a tabula rasa – a mind that is a clean slate. That’s my opinion. Instead, the generations of evolution that have taken place are present within us. We cannot articulate them at first, but it’s my opinion that we are born with understanding. Then nurture takes over and tramples certain aspects of understanding, while leaving others intact. Nurture – tradition, culture, history – teaches us to view the world in ways that might be counterintuitive to nature.

There comes a point in one’s life during which we question how we were raised, and our nature begs us to reconsider certain truths. That’s when we experience depression or angst.

So, if we are all born with this understanding, probably more evolved than what nurture offers us, why aren’t the nurturers of the same mind as us? I figure it’s because traditions are long-standing and humans are loath to change.

Think about “movements” in our collective history. They are called movements because they are instigating change, overcoming cultural inertia. They get push-back because humans hate change. Meanwhile, evolution – by definition change – marches on.

It is within that space between stasis and definitive change that we as individuals often find ourselves as we confront nurture with nature for the first time. It’s exhausting, especially after years of conditioning, to assert thoughts and opinions that diverge from common knowledge.

And yet, this is what we must do. We must confront common knowledge and either accept it or reject it. Sometimes, rejection is received by the community without question, and the community marches on, declaring the individual different, but not a “problem.” Sometimes, the individual is declared unworthy of inclusion. Sometimes, the individual is declared outright dangerous.

In all cases, people need to question the status quo. It’s in our biology, even if society wants to maintain stasis. I question why that is.

  • Why can’t we question without push-back?
  • Why can’t we be Socratic? Why did Socrates have to drink the hemlock?
  • Why don’t we learn from history?
  • Why are philosophers and writers considered dangerous, and teachers not treated professionally?
  • Why do some submit to the collective will, even when they know the collective is wrong?
  • Why do some persist, even when it endangers them?
  • Why does it take so long to bring about change?

Writing-to-Learn Activity: Exploring Banned Books

Through writing-to-learn activities, we can address these questions. While these activities are important for any subject, I’m an English teacher, so my ideas are informed by my experiences in the ELA classroom. I welcome you to contribute your ideas for other content areas.

WtL: Literary Analysis and Response

Great literature beckons us to question everything about it: characters, setting, language, style, theme… We explore our prior knowledge within its context. We find evidence in the text to help us interpret what the author is expressing about its themes. We build knowledge in this process and bounce it off what we knew before. We then either know something new or reject the author’s premise; this decision-making process is a sign of maturity.

Although younger readers might need time with the canon of “accepted” literature, more mature readers should learn about books that make society uneasy. Just as they are starting to question their nurturing, they should be allowed to read texts that help them question. As a teacher, I think it’s my job to curate those texts and present them to my students. My gift to them is an opportunity to experience the discomfort that comes with exposure to inconvenient truth.

Why Discuss Banned Books?

Books are banned because their authors dared to raise certain questions in “unacceptable” ways. Themes emerge from those texts that are anathema to society. Those books, however, hold the keys to human evolution. Where is society hiding the keys? Some may be in a dusty library closet, probably, or a corner of a professor’s office.

As humans develop cognitively, they may find the keys; it’s a “Where’s Waldo?” game with themes. There are clues left by those who disagree with banning books, for example. They are there, and we need to identify them to find them.

At the very least, there should be a discussion about banned books. The American Library Association helps us with “Banned Books Week” each year. The association is promoting the freedom to read. Indeed, reading and freedom do go hand in hand. Consider the audacity of Martin Luther to suggest that ordinary people could – and should – read the Bible! My word! What was he thinking? (That was meant to be sarcastic.)

On this page, you will find the Top 10 Most Challeged Books each year from 2001 – 2020. It is truly amazing to me that last year Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas made the list. In other years, I noticed titles that shocked me as well.

The reasons for banning books also saddened me, especially those LGBTQ-themed books. At a time in which society needs to understand LGBTQ perspectives, to ban the books that express them indicates that society considers the community dangerous.

“Anti-police” books are banned because society doesn’t want to have the conversation we so desperately need to have about police reform. One book that falls into that category, All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, allegedly addressed topics that were too “sensitive” to consider “right now.”

Not now, honey, we’ll discuss it later.

Unfortunately, tomorrow never comes.

This year, Banned Books Week is September 26 – October 2. I plan to address this issue with all my classes that week, and to ask them to write-to-learn about their reaction to banning books. We will also read and react to Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, because that book addresses the notion of banned and destroyed books as the destruction of knowledge itself. We will write-to-learn about our reaction to this theme, whether we agree with it or not.

The New York Times’ article, “The Banned Books Your Child Should Read,” by Perri Klaus, M.D., ends with a perfect reasoning for allowing your child to read banned books.

As a parent, I was dazzled when my daughter’s high school summer reading assignment was to choose a book ‘out of your comfort zone,’ however the student chose to define it. Because that is, of course, what literature does, and part of the glorious freedom (and human right) of literacy is the opportunity to journey with words well beyond your comfort zone.

Yes, indeed.

Thank you for reading this post.

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