Joyful Writing: Personal Writing as Scaffolding for Academic Literacy
Slippery Rock University
"It's long distance," my mom or dad would pronounce on rare occasion, telephone to ear, when such a call came in, giving an imperative signal to my big brother and me to sit still and remain quiet for that auspicious and unusual event back in the 40s in our little bungalow on the south side of Chicago. During those years, however, I observed an equally significant communication- on paper-with far more regularity: weekly letter swapping between my mother and her only sister, exchanges sometimes passing each other between northern and central Illinois. I recall wondering at the time what they possibly had to say to each other after so many years and why those predictable arrivals brought my mother such joy. My dad commandeered the dining room table to correspond with his siblings only on rare occasions, an awesome event akin to those long-distance phone calls. So what secret did Mom share with her sister about the joys of writing?
When I went off to college in the mid 50s, Mom passed the correspondence torch to me. I don't know how she managed to get something into my wee dormitory mailboxes every Friday during those four years. But she did, and the prospect of at least one letter therein inevitably triggered a hasty trip between classes to my residence hall of the year, where I'd fumble with the combination lock dial, eager for news of home. Until her death in 1985, she never failed me, her weekly letters arriving at various addresses across the U.S. and beyond with the same regularity well beyond my undergraduate years. Her fidelity inspired her dutiful daughter in turn, resulting in a nearly equal volume of correspondence from my end as well.
Well before those college years, however, I'd noted not only Mom's joy of writing but my own pleasures with written communiqués as well, certainly largely attributable to her early modeling. I started passing notes in Mrs. Kocsvik's fifth grade-in-school writing most definitely not school sponsored-an illicit pleasure, the fear of a teacher's wrath surpassed by the lure of writing for the pure fun of it, writing almost guaranteed an authentic response from its recipient. Thus from Mom's modeling and my own and hands-on, unauthorized school activity, I began a life-long habit of writing, more often writing what I wasn't assigned rather than school-sponsored or later required or expected writing in my professional life.
What do I have to show for that writing life? A four-drawer home filing cabinet loaded with grade school, high school, and undergraduate school notebooks and papers; a shelf full of graduate school research projects; and countless file folders of job-generated paper artifacts, all seemingly of great consequence at the time of their composition. Of far greater continuing significance, however, is my letter collection stashed in myriad repositories throughout my house, evidence of 40 plus years of active writing, messages that affirm kinship and friendship, validate experience, and supply ongoing commentary on society and culture-and, I might add, written with an intriguing variety of tools and on all manner of "stationery."
Other than evidence of my mother as devoted letter writer, a significant portion of that pack-rat stash derives from my other most faithful and long-term correspondent, my friend Marty. We date the onset of our letters back to Mrs. Ruffle's ninth grade homeroom, where by the luck of the gods and the alphabet, she and I were assigned. We passed notes there and on through high school-catty asides, teacher insults, boy troubles, and parental unfairness generally as the featured topics. We continued this practice, chronicles growing in length and other ways as well as we went off to different colleges, dated more, married, moved often, had three kids each, divorced, endured new roles as displaced homemakers, pursued mid-life careers, exchanged book preferences, lost our parents, coped with empty nests, gained grand-children, sometimes confronted the temporary returns of boomerang offspring, and now, m Marty's case, a rudderless, live-in, 18 year old grandson. Now I understand why my mother and her sister never ran out of writing topics to share: comment and response/response and comment; the possibilities now seem endless in such a correspondence.
Throughout these decades of joys and concerns, one constant emerges: Marty's letters sustain me, as I like to think mine do her. I do know that when I respond in kind to one of her "tomes" (generally at least eight pages long, single spaced) or sometimes these days a far briefer e-mail, I discover what I think, value, and believe-about life in general and, perhaps more significantly, women's roles and ways by which women seem perpetually engaged in reinventing ourselves, accommodating our lives and those of our loved ones, attempting to capitalize on assets and, not always with resounding success, to minimize our debits. Examining this collection of artifacts reveals not only personal but writing growth too-invention, arrangement and style honed by years of writing for authentic audiences and purposes. Either of us can expound far more adroitly these days on any number of shared or disparate concerns in organized fashion, expressing ideas with syntactic maturity, and-at least in Marty's case-almost poetic language--mini essays a la Erma Bombeck, or Craig Wilson, her favorite Chicago Tribune columnist, or a couple of mine from Pittsburgh's Post-Gazette. How could all those years of practice and authentic feedback result in anything else?
Thus, over the years my views of writing have changed considerably. I used to think of academic and professional writing as the real thing; personal writing was just a frill, a sort of leisure-time, trivial pursuit. Now I see the distinction between these two supposedly opposing forms blurring, public writing informing that of a more personal and private nature and vice versa. Both serve as ways of remembering, making sense of experience, informing, supporting, and encouraging readers. Both provide opportunity for personal and writing growth.
A half century or so has passed since I've witnessed anyone silently in awe at the announcement, "it's long distance." But I can attest that when I find one of Marty's tomes in my mailbox or a letter from any one of numerous other pen pals I've acquired over the years, a moment of awe and gratitude prevails for the blessings of my mother and best writing teacher, as well as all those additional faithful correspondents who continue to enrich my reading life as, in turn, my responses to them enhance my writing life. I wonder if Mrs. Kocvick and Mrs. Ruffles would acknowledge or even recognize what life in their classrooms triggered in my personal literacy history. I hope they'd come to see self-initiated, personal writing as I now view it. That is, teachers of language and literature must seek fresh, non-mainstream ways to examine literacy anew, to capitalize on rather than squelch or ignore the power of such forms as the personal letter or casually generated written responses in general, encouraging lifelong memberships in the literacy club to all with whom they work and play.
But how can teachers accomplish such a feat~ We've all participated in informal English teacher gripe sessions, bemoaning students' limited exposure to and experience in writing--at least I confess to doing so on college, secondary, and junior high levels. On the other hand, it's unrealistic to think that teachers can or should respond to the quantities of writing necessary for writing growth.
I know that 15 years of non-academic writing during a self-imposed maternity leave from teaching might have proved devastating during my mid-life return to academia, both as a teacher and a student. However, throughout those 15 years, I wrote plenty: aforementioned personal correspondence, minutes and public relations notices for various community organizations, and occasional concerned letters to editors. I later stewed mightily over cranking out that first graduate school paper, yet I found myself amazed at how the words of academia began to flow and seemed to make as much sense as those of my predominately younger (and with no history of semi-writing retirement) student colleagues. As Erasmus quotation asserts on those little NCTE post-it notes: "The desire to write grows with writing." I'll add that success in and encouraging responses to one genre promote willingness to tackle less familiar ones and increase the likelihood of success in them too.
Indeed, when I peruse the school-sponsored writing I've accumulated from eighth grade on, I find very relatively few teacher-written responses facilitating writing progress, the vast majority addressing lower-order concerns, in particular my unconventional application of the semicolon, a mark I clearly adored but over which I had no informed control for years. That writing served as examination of print-code conventions mastery, it seems, glossing over ideas, their development, and organization. And--until graduate school--no teacher ever suggested any revision of either form or content. What a contrast those teacher-written responses make to those contained in my personal correspondence file, wherein my mother, pal Marty, and others express concern, request more information, point out lack of clarity, suggest solutions to problems, etc., responses in turn informing future written replies.
This personal writing history now affects my classroom instruction in three ways: the establishment of writing rituals (suggested by my mother's long-term and totally regular correspondence), modeling writing (inspired by my early observations of her in the act of writing and reactions to replies themselves), and providing opportunity for peers and teacher alike to generate more authentic responses than red penning semicolon confusion.
In all classes, from College Writing I to upper-division and graduate classes, my male and female students use personal writing as a means to academic learning. They generate a learning log entry per meeting for peer and teacher response, topics covering anything from reflections on assigned readings, class activities and assignments, to commentary on work in progress. Students know a part of each class meeting involves exchanging entries for peer reading and written response. In turn, I read these later, adding responses as well, primarily to the entry's original author but sometimes to the peer responder as well. I can't say I've successfully converted all my students to devotees of this form of correspondence, but well over half of them refer to this activity as positively affecting their writing growth and attitudes toward writing in end-of-semester course reflections and self and course evaluations. They write on a regular, class ritual basis, see me doing likewise, and receive responses to content rather than form from a varied audience over the course of 16 weeks, writing addressing teacher concerns of both quantity and quality with little additional effort on my part.
When I read what my students write back and forth, their comments reveal humor, support for one another, helpful suggestions to what a peer might report struggling with--qualities paralleled in the content of letters that my mother, ace correspondent Marty, and others have written to me over the years. By the end of the semester these informal exchanges move more rapidly, generate more words and more precise content, most students reporting as well that it's generally easier to write and more pleasurable than they'd previously experienced.
Those student accounts of more positive attitudes toward writing inspired me to seek additional ways to blur the tines between more private and public writing, ways removing me as teacher from the equation, increasing authenticity, as well as not adding any more reading of or responding to student writing to my teaching life. Thus, a couple of years ago a pair of former students, now teachers in area high schools, and I began letter exchanges between their students and mine, in this case, secondary education English majors. Their students want to know what college life is really like. Mine want to know how high schoolers write and what they like to read--fodder for an on-going correspondence satisfying both groups' curiosity and providing ample additional writing opportunity on a regular basis.
I'm now in contact with another former student currently teaching English in Japan and a retired SRU colleague teaching English in Korea. We're currently attempting to set up letter exchanges between their students and my College Writing I first-year writers during the coming fall semester, again providing regular writing experiences and authentic responses, another writing ritual, if you will. In turn, students will observe my colleagues and my mail exchanges--modeling correspondent behaviors my colleagues and I hope they'll enjoy and profit from emulating.
Over the past few years, I've found yet another potential correspondent and the opportunity to pass along infatuation with writing that my mother instilled and friend Marty abetted to yet another generation, in this case, my granddaughter Jessea. Her drawings have been freely supplied for the past few years, of course; but just last week some very special mail arrived from the long distance that separates her from me: my first real letter from Jessea, now a first grader.
I hope its arrival signals the beginning of a life-long writing habit for her, just as I hope my in-class writing rituals similarly serve for my students--an opportunity for an on-going conversation on paper, or equipment permitting, on the screen--frequent writing events involving the practice so necessary for writers to evolve in productive ways. And I hope as well the it in, "it's long distance," comes to refer to personal mail rather than a phone call, letters resulting in the wonder those long-distance calls once inspired in by-gone days--the kind of self-sponsored writing that delights both sender and recipient, invites replies, and ultimately scaffolds academic literacy.
The media churn out messages to "read to your kids" and "talk to your kids." It's time now to add a third and equally important piece of advice: Write to your kids. The joy will do them good.Reference Citation: Dreyer, Diana. (2000) "Joyful Writing: Personal Writing as a Scaffold to Academic Literacy." WILLA, Volume 9, p. 35-37.