Guest Post: Writing: A Witness for the Defense

A dose of truth by talented writer Kevin Washburn!

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“Check out my graduation!” screams the latest social media update. One click and there the proudgraduate appears, striding confidently across the stage. As if witnessing the event through one cell phone camera weren’t enough, related videos pop up in a line down the right side of the screen. Click enough times and you can get that you-are-there feeling, reliving the entire event through the lenses of countless cameras.

When the graduate’s parents were young themselves, “Video killed the radio star” blared from cable-connected televisions. The hit song seemed too perfect for the 1980‘s birth of MTV. No longer was pop music just something for youthful ears. Now it was a collage of film clips with lip-syncing singers and implausible plots. While a few music videos achieved the equivalent of classic movie status, most became yesterday’s news faster than the era’s other notable innovation, New Coke.

The death of words has been announced repeatedly ever since the printing press made them a mass media. Even today, writing has its head in the guillotine while search engines, portable cameras, and royalty-free photographs suspend a blade above its neck. “Students do not need to learn to write well,” the executioner proclaims. “Today’s young people do not use words to communicate. The age of the image has dawned, and with it’s arrival we can now behead this challenging capacity.” Continuing his tirade, the executioner takes a step forward. “Long live the image!”

“Wait!” Even I am surprised to hear my own voice. “What was that graduate feeling as he strode across the stage?”

“Huh?” replies the executioner. The crowd echoes the monosyllabic question.

“I want to know what the graduate was thinking. Did he consider the past? foresee the future? or just worry about not tripping up the stairs?”

“Well,” says the deliverer of death, “let’s find out. Launch the browser!” The same cell phone footage flickers on the wall behind the scene’s protagonists. “As you can plainly see,” explains the executioner, impatient to release the blade, “the graduate is smiling. Therefore he must have been happy.” He takes another step toward the guillotine.

“No, that isn’t what I mean.” Again, my voice shocks me, as if the words are something I cannot hold back. “What did he ponder, reflect on, consider as he crossed the stage?”

“That is not worth knowing,” bellows the executioner. “All we need to know is what we can see. The rest we can surmise, and it will not matter whether we draw the right conclusions or not. The image tells us everything that is important about the experience.”

“Yes!” shouts the crowd. “Enough red ink has flowed. It is time to abandon writing for twenty-first century skills!”

Writing isn’t even in the acronym,” mocks the executioner. “We are beyond the need for such archaic capacities. Besides, kids these days play video games where the multimedia-fed stimulation is constant. Writing requires quiet contemplation, careful crafting of message, and challenge without immediate consequences. How can we expect young people to be so disciplined in an age of iGadgets?”

An ominous chant begins with a single voice. “Let the blade fall!” The crowd picks up the chant, their thirst for ease and borrowed images moving the executioner’s hand.

The blade falls. Within moments the entire event is uploaded to multiple sites, chirped to masses, and “liked” by “friends” around the world. The separation complete, schools abandon the challenge of teaching students to communicate with words and phrases that deserve attention. English teachers who are not athletic coaches are fired and replaced by acronym-fitting instructors. Never again are students engaged in writing more than a message of 140 characters. Sustained thought is shunned, and articulate students are told they lack marketable skills.

So what? What is really lost if writing is not an instructional focus? What truly are we giving up by turning away from developing students who can link words, phrases, and clauses? I have addressed research findings on writing’s value elsewhere, so I’d like to share some personal thoughts, to “testify” of the personal value writing can provide.

Writing helps me process my experience. I recently began working with a running coach. This is the first time I have worked formally with a coach since high school. As I shared this news with a few colleagues, one asked me why I decided to seek out an expert to help me with my growing obsession. I bumbled through a reply, knowing that I was stringing together reasons that failed to reach the true source of my actions.

A few days later, I revisited some of my recent writings. There I discovered the true seed that would become this new mentorship. While running my first marathon in January, I noticed several coaches and how they interacted with “their runners.” I was so impressed with their dedication that I first wanted to be one of them. What a great way to combine my education background and my growing obsession, I thought. Then, a growing frustration with my own running changed my thinking: I need one of them!

This is the real story, but I would have lost it had I not processed the experience of my first marathon via writing. Through wrestling the words into place, I realized and understood what I had gained on the 26.2 mile journey.

Writing forces me to clarify my ideas, positions, and understandings. As an educator, I am always looking for the instructional implications in new research. But before I can identify the implications, I have to understand the research. Many times I think I do until I try to write about it. Writing forces me to think deeply about new ideas and, just as importantly, articulate that understanding clearly for others. This process reveals my lack of understanding more often than I would like to admit. However, this is a positive. It reveals where my thinking and understanding are weak. It returns me to the place of reading, thinking, and reflecting. In short, it pushes me to learn what I need to know, not just to communicate the ideas to others, but to construct the understanding I need to apply new ideas myself.

In other words, writing is an excellent teacher. It forces me to formatively assess my own learning and retool to deepen my understanding. Writing promotes self-teaching.

Finally, writing heightens my perception. I do not have fMRI images to prove this at a neurological level, but I know that I look at and think about the world differently when I am actively writing. I look for illustrations in my experiences. I seek connections between ideas as I read. I look more closely, think more deeply, and find greater satisfaction in interacting with the world and its inhabitants.

For example, I recently taught a graduate class in which one of the topics I wanted to explore was emotional regulation. Emotional regulation is the control of emotions, especially negative emotions, that enables greater emotional resiliency; an individual with good emotional regulation copes with life better and bounces back from disappointment more quickly.

On a Saturday morning run, I was thinking about the class and decided that I needed some powerful illustrations of the ideas. What or who could illustrate emotional regulation? I could make up a story, but it would be more powerful to point to a real person. Enter Cecil.

Here is how I introduced him in the class materials:

On a recent run, I met another runner named Cecil. He began running when he was 60 and has run several marathons in the last four years. He mentioned that he wanted to qualify for the Boston Marathon—a major accomplishment for a runner of any age. He felt confident going into his last marathon, but missed qualifying by 33 seconds. His wife was devastated for him, but when she started to say she was “so sorry,” he replied, “Bah, it’s all about the journey. Besides, in a few months I turn 65, and that gives me fifteen more minutes of qualifying time.” That is resilience!

Cecil would still have impressed me, but because I was actively writing at the time, he became an icon, someone who represented far more than the sum of his experience. My perception was heightened, my thoughts were deeper, and my admiration for Cecil grew into respect. He’s not just another runner; he is a role-model, an inspiration!

So, let’s stay the executioner’s hand and song. We still need individuals who process deeply, illuminate clearly, and perceive intently. We still need people who write and whose minds have been strengthened by the practice.

We still need to teach writing—effectively, intentionally, and passionately!

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Kevin D. Washburn, Ed.D., is the Executive Director of Clerestory Learning and author of the Writer’s Stylus instructional writing program. He’s also the author of The Architecture of Learning: Designing Instruction for the Learning Brain.


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