Everyone has something valuable to add to the public discourse. But how do you convince someone they can write? If you have decent rhetorical ability, and you aren't learning disabled, then writing is only a matter of transferring thought into text. My ten-year old son worries too much about grammar, spelling, and rules. He gets hung up on his words, and he is afraid to take any risk. Tonight over dinner, I discovered by using an excerpt and a question found in a worksheet, my son didn't know the difference between a symbol used as a literary device, and one used as a question mark. The students are required to write, yet, they have no tools to do the job. We covered simile and metaphor at home over a book written by composition theorist Mary Ellen Ledbetter. He learned how to use specific details, hyphenated modifiers, figurative language, humor, and the full circle ending. But when he has to write for his teacher, he is afraid, introverted, and prone to following the strictest of rules. He is not liberated by his prose; instead, he is imprisoned and miserable. If this is what is happening in fourth grade class rooms, then it makes sense that we have a whole generation of students who have no interest in transferring rhetoric into readable text.
Writing and reading develop best when students create a community that gathers to argue, constructively criticize, and laugh at their foibles. Only until students feel free and unthreatened can they open up enough to write decent and meaningful narratives. You can't forego the horse and jump straight into the cart. Writing a narrative is the foundation for more intricate essays: persuasive, comparison, process, and heavily researched. In one class I observed a student argue against writing a narrative claiming that if someone knew his birthday they would steal his identity. It was really the most ignorant of arguments, and I knew he had heard this somewhere at home. But I also knew that the school had no knowledge of composition; they would likely support this ridiculous claim. The state requires children in the fourth grade to know specific tasks concerning writing skills. I have yet to see one that does meet this requirement.
My child has to let go of his inhibitions, or he will never learn to really enjoy reading and writing. English art is about freedom of expression, debate, humanities, politics, and the ivory tower. Reading is supposed to inspire the student, offend, surprise, and create critical thought. To find the little academic you have to unleash his power. The teacher has to accept that she may be offended, confused, or angered by the student that thinks. My son is afraid to elbow his way to the bar, someone might object. For most students, it is a now or never situation. But if they do get a chance to enjoy the power of written text at some later point, they may find themselves in a basic writing class. It is here that men and women with pasts fraught with error meet together with things to say that simply cannot be unheard. Rather than learn to relent early in life, and have an early chance at literacy, they are condemned to a life with little academic meaning. It is in this kind of class you meet the survivors of a bad education. They attended schools and lived lives that were adult centered, rather than structured around what was best for the child. Rather than recess, they sat inside; rather than a vocabulary, they were confined to niceties; rather than a class that struggled and strained as a unit, they floundered in isolation. Students were allowed to interfere with other student's education and civil rights; discipline was a joke. It is here you find anger unleashed and whole groups of students that were underprivileged by the system; the birthdays were always celebrated with a name on the calendar. How nicey nice.