Monday with Martin: Nurturing the Writer’s Garden

This post from David Martin goes back to the very beginning — 1994.  In it, David describes how he came to see how important personal writing could be as an educational method.  Check it all out below.

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By David Martin
By David Martin

This year I tried to make something special happen in my classroom. I decided to teach what I knew was right for me and my students. I sacrificed the tired, traditional composition format of grammar, mechanics, and the five-paragraph theme. I instituted a new divine trinity: the first person pronoun, writing from direct experience, and the journal.

So far, I am not sorry with my decision. In fact, I see tremendous improvement in my students. In previous years, I taught the following levels of English composition: pre-remedial, remedial, hospital English, terminal English, pre-civilized sophomores, academic juniors, twelfth grade night school, creative writing, and college undergraduates (freshman and advanced upperclassmen). Many students from each level told me quietly, in secret, so none of their friends would hear that they felt writing to be fun again. They told me they learned self-discovery through their writing.

I was most inspired, however, to find proper punctuation magically appearing where necessary, when the students believed what they were writing was important and someone was going to read and believe what was written, inside and outside the classroom. Passion, al kinds, entered into their papers, to stay, to grow, like seeds well nurtured in a garden.

My high school is an above average, college prep school. The faculty and administrators are very happy with the schools image and success. It provides good teachers and good education for the average, above average, and the gifted teenagers. I saw a way I could add to this quality by increasing the warmth and humanness in English class. I offered a place of caring for the individual student with personal journal.

In my high school classes, one day a week is devoted to journal activities. By far, the most successful writing-teaching technique I have used to incorporate the personal journal into all my lessons. I feel strongly that my students’ writing improved with the journal that 20% of my class time is concentrated in this yearly project.

I prepared a list of over 300 topics for students to write about if they could not find interesting ones of their own, but I always gave them a choice of topics on which to write.

The first day of class, students had to design the own coat of arms by cutting pictures from old magazines to pictorially represent the following characteristics of themselves: 1) one important item of their past, 2) one important item of the present, 3) one important item of their future, 4) one important item of how others see them, 5) one important animal that symbolizes their personality, 6-7) two favorite quotations which illustrate important concepts wit which they identify.

Each student must bring an open loose leaf, three-ring notebook with rings two to three inches in diameter. I store them in my so they are always available to me, and I may read them at my convenience. The students take loose-leaf paper home with them and when the assignment is finished the next day; they simply insert the pages into their notebooks. This prevents loss of books and increases neatness and orderliness.

I read the notebooks weekly. Each student writing is titled which lets me read selectively when I must, but each page is at least spot read. I always leave a check on each page to let the student realize that his pages have bee read even if I don’t comment on each one.

When it comes time for grading the journals, I inform the writers that the grading in done by the pound. Effort and quantity are the primary qualities I am looking for. I only make positive comments in the journal. I never make a negative one.

This writer’s garden receives only nurturing and fertilizer, never any poison or salt. With this system, I have seen changes in students’ attitudes towards English class within two weeks time. This positive reinforcement of the writer’s individual communication greatly affects not only my classes but the students’ self-confidence and their outlooks on life in general.

This year-long project develops into a warehouse of feelings, emotions, ideas, and personal revelations. In less than nine months, it surprises me every year how many students tell me, “Mr. M.! I was re-reading my journal last night and I don’t feel the same way about…that I did in September and October.” The students’ ideas move and evolve through their writing and because of their writing.

Frequently, I give students a topic and four minutes time to finish writing their ideas. Usually, they will write one-half page per four minutes. In a forty minute period an average student will finish four to five pages. This is half of their weekly writing assignment for the journal. I give “A’s” to those who produce 10 pages a week.

I try not to let the students come up for air on these days. Just as they start to breathe easily, I give them another topic. I always let them leave room on their paper, as much as they want, so they can go back and finish any uncompleted thoughts when they relax. In this way, they start in class and can finish as much as they choose.

Jokingly, I say to switch hands if their first one gets tired while writing. Even the slow composition students enjoy the challenge after a few times because they make so much progress in their journals. The ones who can’t think of something to write about must find new excuses not to write.

The journal is simply the biggest project undertaken all year. Neatness, effort, pride of ownership, creativity, they all count, but quantity is paramount. Some journals are all letters; some are all short stories; some are all possible mixtures. I don’t care, as long as they write. All prose papers written in class or for class may count.

Creativity is encouraged daily; we write at football games, at museums, in study hall, looking out windows. Seventy-five pages at the end of the semester are required for a “1.” All other grades are pro-rated on a percentage basis.

Extra credit may be earned in excess of 100%. I have given journal grades as high as 300%. If the students want to write, I never put a ceiling on their productivity or their earning potential. Write on. Right on.

I write every assignment that I give my class. I read them out loud to each class and treat all the students as if they were in my small group. This breaks barriers more easily than anything else I have found when it comes to getting reluctant student writers to share their work in class. My children at home keep a journal, and sometimes I bring their work to share with my high school students.

One student graduated a year ago and continues to write. Her production now includes thousands of pages, only a few years after graduating from high school. Once every two months, she brings her notebooks to me so I can read them.

This student and I went to her grandmother’s grave in a local cemetery one day so she could say important words to her that she never had a chance to speak before this favorite relative’s death. The student’s invitation was the most unusual one I ever received. After clearing the trip with her parents, we found the grave and sat down in silence. One hour in the cemetery with this student was a guaranteed stimulus for writing. She has not quit writing in her journal since.

I try to have fun with the journals in many ways. I include stickers with funny sayings on them. “Far out! Now you are going to town! Excellent! Teeeerrrriiiiffffiiiicccc! The stickers remind some of elementary school, but when a student of mine does not get one, I sure hear about it.

My students stopped complaining about how much writing they were doing after the first quarter, when they saw that I was not going to stop expecting them to produce, and neither was I going to quit writing myself.

When they saw that I was passing out grades in excess of 100%, they became believers. If a student writes more than 10 pages per week, I liberally pass out extra credit grades, resounding praise for that person’s enthusiastic composition, and send their best work in to the Fine Lines editors.

Journaling is the greatest tool that I have found for encouraging students at all levels to write, to improve their writing, and to enjoy writing. No matter how slow students might be at the beginning of class, if they don’t give up on writing. I promise it won’t give up on them. No matter how good students might be upon entering the class, if they continue to write in their journals, I promise them they will improve.

I tell all my students that if they keep their faith in their journal, their journal will keep its faith in them. Writers must write what they mean and mean what they write. Write on. Happy journaling. Keep the faith.