Agency matters: why letting students write what they want works

The process of teaching writing to students in the United States is broken. Our faulty approach affects every child in the school system, but it is strongly highlighted in how it affects our nation’s most vulnerable students: students with disabilities.

When one looks at how writing is taught affects students with disabilities in particular, certain specific disabilities come to light. Neurodevelopmental disabilities, such as ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder, or disabilities that affect decoding, such as specific learning disabilities in language arts and dyslexia, are all especially impacted by restrictive, by-the-book writing instruction. Students are expected to plan their writing, explain their writing and produce identical products of writing within one classroom. The concept of freedom is foreign and scarcely even considered.

The flawed means in which students with disabilities are taught writing became startlingly apparent to me when I observed a middle school English language arts learning support classroom for my undergraduate BSED courses.

The students in the classroom experienced a variety of need— some had autism, some had specific learning disabilities in English language arts and some were intellectually disabled. Some had emotional behavior disturbances. But they had one obvious thing in common: all of them hated writing, and all of them were routinely given writing assignments that held no meaning, no room for creative exploration and no means of engagement. They frequently acted out in class and angrily expressed their boredom and frustration with the question-answer style pieces given to them in a rused, small-table lecture. Many of them tried to distract the teacher on a routine basis that actually seemed to work more often than not.

In their position, who wouldn’t hate writing? When we assume that material and expectations need to be “dumbed down” or “made easier,” we immediately fail these students before they even begin school. By doing this, you create a student population who will give up and grow frustrated with their writing assignments before they even start. They will catch on very quickly that they are going to be forced to write something that they do not care about, and that they don’t have any choice or agency in the matter.

For students who struggle to finish writing assignments… placing emphasis on the writing process is crucial.

Donald Murray, an American journalist and English professor, explains why freedom and choice are essential to teach writing in his article titled, “Teach Writing as a Process, Not a Product.” The title is self-explanatory— he believes we should place emphasis on the discovery, exploration and learning processes of writing as a means of teaching the craft to students and place less importance on the “final product” itself. Murray urges teachers to understand that students should always be given the utmost freedom in their topic, planning and style of their writing as a means to find their own voice and truth.

Murray urges teachers to understand that students should always be given the utmost freedom in their topic, planning and styler of their writing as a means to find their own voice and truth.

In “Teach Writing as a Process Not a Product,” Murray says, “Instead of teaching finished writing, we should teach unfinished writing and glory in its unfinishedness.” How would the classroom I observed be different if the students were given guidance in their writing process, instead of rushing them to produce a barely-acceptable product? Would the girl in the class who loved art continue to verbally refuse to do her work? Or would she write about art, and possibly include illustrations to go along with her writing? These questions may never have answers, as the norm for the many teachers is to provide as little means of open-endedness in their teaching when they teach students with disabilities.

For students who struggle to finish writing assignments (something that is especially common for students with ADHD), placing emphasis on the writing process is crucial, especially since children with disabilities will not be able to benefit from the same writing processes that might benefit others. Many students with disorders such as ADHD and Autism simply do not process information in the world around them the same way as neurotypical children do. They view the world differently and take in sensory information in entirely unique ways. For them, the chance to explore their own process is just as, if not more important, as it is for other children.

On page five of “Teach Writing as a Process Not a Product,” Murray emphasizes the importance of respecting students’ writing and, more importantly, respecting their own, unique search for truth as they go about the writing process. Effective teaching for students with academic needs in writing and language arts as a whole cannot afford to let go of Murray’s process and beliefs towards writing instruction. Students whose disabilities impact their writing are going to have different means of processing their thoughts that may look very different from their peers without disabilities. Their writing needs to be held in the same manner of importance and respect.

Overall, students with disabilities require Murray’s approach to writing more than almost any other demographic of students. While great strides are made in the special education field every day, schools still fall into the habits of shoving students with disabilities aside, oftentimes in the name of shallow, ineffective inclusion. These are students who are largely led to believe that they do not have a voice, nor are their ideas and opinions worth being heard.

This raises an important question for teachers: if teachers are to allow their students the utmost freedom in their writing instruction, what sort of role are teachers to take? Continuing on page five, Murray refers to teachers as “coaches, encouragers, developers [and] creators of environments in which students can experience the writing process for themselves.”

Essentially, he attempts to make teachers understand how important a role teachers will continue to play in the writing process by including his beliefs about teaching writing in their classrooms. This is the role that teachers must take; they must understand that their role as a teacher is to lead and develop their students’ voices, regardless of ability and need, and never to command. By allowing students with disabilities to access this approach, teachers will generate a true, inclusive learning environment in which students with disabilities can effectively learn alongside their peers.

Samantha Walsh is a fourth year student majoring in English and special education. SW850037@wcupa.edu

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