Whether we like to admit it or not, writing in the English language arts classroom is often driven by the STAAR test. We want our students to explore many different genres, but the pressure to prepare them for that 26-line expository essay is all too real. But let’s face it, a 26-line form does not lend itself to authentic writing. Instead, teachers often drudge through the task of grading formulaic essays that lack voice and craft. It’s maddening I tell you. Maddening.
So what’s a desperate teacher to do? For me, the answer lies in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. This program offers students the opportunity to broaden their creative writing skills while having the chance to earn regional and national recognition. The idea is introduced fairly early in the school year, so students have enough time to work on their piece. They can choose from different categories such as short story, flash fiction, science fiction, fantasy, poetry, humor and personal memoir. I discovered something important after my students began turning in their submissions. Choice equals voice. Perhaps the freedom to choose their genre gives them the confidence to take risks they wouldn’t normally take. Maybe the idea of broadening their audience and being acknowledged by someone other than just Mrs. Sham is exciting to them. Whatever it is, they take ownership of their work, become more engaged in the writing process, and gain confidence as real writers.
Teachers benefit, too. There are so many opportunities for lessons during the process that cover a wide range of TEKS. First and foremost, we cover the characteristics of different genres, audiences and purposes. This leads to lessons on the elements of plot, character development, conflict and theme. Grammar skills are taught in the context of their own writing. Students learn sentence structure, sentence variety and word choice. We practice with different leads and conclusions. We’ll even break away from the grip of the expository essay, opting instead for mysteries, humorous stories, imaginative stories, clever stories and sometimes deeply personal stories. Their work tells me something about my students – what they like, what they find funny, what challenges they face. Ultimately, I learn who they are.
Luckily for me, I’ve had the pleasure of watching several students receive regional awards. Last year, I was fortunate enough to sit in Carnegie Hall in New York City and watch in awe as one of my students was nationally recognized for her flash-fiction piece. It’s a moment I’m sure she will never forget, and I can assure you I won’t either.
If you’re a teacher like me with students who are reluctant to write or struggle to find their voice in their writing, give a contest like the Scholastic Writing Awards a try. Maybe a passion for writing won’t be ignited in each individual, but hopefully your students will begin to see writing as something other than a chore or a standardized test. Perhaps like Sylvia Plath, Stephen King and Truman Capote – all former Scholastic Writing Award winners – students may find a spark that uncovers a hidden talent.
(Contributed by Paula Shamburger, English/language arts teacher, Deer Park Junior High, Deer Park ISD)