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Last Bell: Writing Outside The Box

Don’t be your students’ only reader.

By Erica Jacobs

If the classroom is a box, then it’s no surprise that focusing “outside the box” improves the quality of writing. I see this every year when my seniors write college essays. Having that outside audience gives their prose an entirely new dimension.

Students have done some brilliant writing “inside the box” too, but at a certain point, they get sick of pleasing teacher after teacher and are ready to set their sights on the outside world.

Writing is, paradoxically, both very personal and extremely sociable. When we know our writing will go “public”—whether it’s an interdepartmental memo or a first novel—our desire for excellence increases.

I learned this nearly 30 years ago at a retreat sponsored by the Northern Virginia Writing Project, whose philosophy is that students and teachers are writers preparing for a common goal: publication in the form of reading aloud or duplication in print. The retreat opened up a new world in which my “voice” was heard, appreciated, even applauded.

I couldn’t wait to type up some of the scribbles I had produced and become one of the thousands of freelance writers who send in unsolicited articles. That weekend, I went from being a writing teacher to a writer.

That’s exactly what we want for our students. We want them to be bitten by the bug, to realize that a single turn of phrase might elicit a chuckle, guffaw, or even a tear. We want them to fall in love with language and appreciate that literature is not just a subject—it’s a craft.

Since that weekend, I have had many opportunities to help my students “publish.” In ninth-grade classes, I have organized editorial groups where students become magazine editors and review submissions, making corrections and suggestions. This works best when you have more than one class so the submissions can be anonymous.

This year, in an interdisciplinary Advanced Placement class I co-teach, we asked students to submit essays to a “Being an American” contest sponsored by the Bill of Rights Institute. The essays we received were their best writings of the year.

An eleventh-grade teacher I know asks her students to write children’s books and deliver them to a local elementary school; the reaction from the children who receive books made especially for them is an unprecedented high point for her teenagers, who suddenly feel very adult and important.

Last year, Lucy Young entered Oprah Winfrey’s high school writing contest on the relevance of Elie Wiesel’s Night in today’s world. Of 50,000 entries, hers was one of 50 top essays, and she appeared on the Oprah show with the other winners and the author. She went home with a $10,000 scholarship and priceless memories.

When our class watched a tape of that show, we all vicariously felt the thrill and admired the double tribute to language as she and the other winners wrote powerfully about the power of Wiesel’s memoir. Lucy then read her winning essay to our class, tracing in words her revelation that the evils Wiesel wrote about still take place today. She concludes, “But tears shed for those departed are also tears for hope—hope that we, as humans, will eventually learn from our mistakes and boldly confront evil. That is Night’s blessing.”

After the applause, we celebrated with a cake inscribed with “I Love Lucy.”

Whether teachers simply ask students to read their pieces aloud to one another or their parents, or photocopy poems for a class project, directing student writing to the outside world gives an assignment extra weight and breadth.

We may strive to make “inside the box” activities valuable and engaging, but “outside the box,” the grass is always greener.

Erica Jacobs teaches English at George Mason University and Oakton High School in Virginia and writes a weekly column on education for The Examiner newspaper.

Photo: Patrick Ryan

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