The Rules

A student sits at his desk responding to an essay we have read, writing his own piece. As I walk up, I see sketches sprinkled among the words. One of a small child, knees pulled to their chest, and head down; shadows shaded all around them the texts that wrapped the image, “I may be an artist, but I am no writer.”

I wondered in that moment before speaking where he got the idea he was not a writer? The words he had on the page, while unconventionally organized, painted a beautiful picture. He was writing about the importance of asymmetry as a metaphor for the importance of a community being made up of unique people. What better example of this uniqueness than a multimodal creation to tell his story? I talked to him about why he felt this way, and he spoke to the “rules” of writing and how he doesn’t follow them so well. It was not the first time I had heard “The Rules” since starting my first attempt at teaching a senior English class.

We started the year with free writing. I got a lot of, “How long does this have to be?” or “Do we write a 5 paragraph essay?” followed by, “Ok so if not what is the structure?”

I think I have said, “Let’s just start with writing” more times than in the entire time I taught Junior High. These rules that generally only exist in academic writing and more so in High School only exist in High School. I tried explaining that outside High School, writing happens without rules. Our paragraphs are not always five sentences, and our essays are not five paragraphs. Our first paragraph does not have to hit the reader over the head with the controlling idea; there can be nuance. Stories are powerful, personal ones more so.

This news has been really uncomfortable for many in the class to accept, which has shocked me. This need for rules and structure, this hesitance to explore the page with their pencil and ideas, has me confused. It is something I was not prepared for, but I welcome the challenge.

We started last week with Nawal Q Casiano’s piece for #31daysIBPOC, which can be found here  . We discussed the moves she made in the article, the lines that stood out, the themes they thought they noticed, and then I asked them to use this beautiful mentor text to guide their writing. Despite their calls for length minimums or how long it had to be, there were some beautiful ideas coming but the rules were getting in the way of finding themselves as writers. We are working on it, and I am grateful for beautiful pieces like Nawal’s that will guide my students to a bit of freedom from the constraints they have been working with previously.

I am not so much of a hippie that I don’t think structure and “rules” have their purpose, but when they put limits on creativity and tell our students that they must live within a box, I struggle. So we will learn, among other things in English 30-1 this year, that we can learn rules of writing while embracing the freedom of creating without them. Discovering and embracing who they are as writers, and we are going to write—a lot.

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