The Writer Adjudicates Writing

For the second year in a row I have had the privilege of adjudicating the essays of the children who entered the writing contest sponsored by Friends of Child Protection (FCP).   What an experience it has been!

FCP is a charity that aids abused children in South Africa.  The website contains the staggering statistics on the numbers of children who are sexually abused in the country yearly.  As you can read there, FCP does several things to help the children, both directly and indirectly.  The charity funds grassroots out-reach organizations, sponsors a safe-house and puts together comfort packs filled with a cuddle toy, bubbles, a sandwich and horror of horror, a pair of underwear – because the children really do need them after what they’ve been subjected to.

The super-woman who runs the charity is Kerrin Marcon, a South African woman who resides in Japan and wants to give back to her countrymen.  She and a few other amazing women hold fundraisers, raise awareness and generally support the charity however it needs.

The writing contest was last year’s brain child to raise money.  We didn’t have too many entries but this year, due to a change in the way it was disseminated – through the schools instead of word of mouth – there were nearly three times as many.

The writing prompt was pretty simple and spanned all the age groups: Every time you help someone in need, you change the world.  If you could do something, write a story about what you would do and why. We divided the kids into groups – 7-9 year olds, 10-12 year olds and 13-18 year olds.  The six and under set got to draw a picture in response to the prompt and a separate art judge took care of those.

The ideas that these children came up with were simply phenomenal.  Some children wrote about giving money. The more creative kids wrote about how they would raise money and/or what they would do with it after they raised it.  There were a few truly creative ideas like building water tanks, forcing companies to give parts of their profits to charity, or even selling cards made by the children of South Africa.  One child wrote about how her mother was her role model for charitable giving.  One child wrote about the importance of educating parents to take proper care of their kids.  And another precocious child wrote about how children have a right to education. The possibilities for saving the world seemed endless to them – and even within their grasp.

And that is why I love working on these essays and enjoy the time I spend reading them for FCP.  It reminds me of the goodness of people.  Cynicism is learned, not innate, and I get to listen to these great thinkers before the world has crashed in on them and reality sets in.

I feel like the luckiest writing professor in the world.

Critical Thinking, Freedom, Your Right And Responsibility to Creativity: At What Cost? Part TWO!

Yesterday on Trisha Wooldridge’s blog, she and I began a debate on personal freedom and safety and ways to balance the two in a free society.  We talked a bit about the issues facing the U.S. and Japan (the countries where we live) and began to discuss potential resolutions to the issues involving education and personal responsibility.  Today we continue the debate and discuss more educational issues along with the realities and unrealities of financing real solutions. We also talk seriously about the way people respond to such issues.  Enjoy!

Trisha: I think, the overall problem with education, is that it isn’t supported by the U.S. culture.

Aimee: Whew, and that’s going to be an issue going forward in the world economy!

Trisha: I know – and the extent to which we support “personal liberty” in education is also an extreme.  Everyone is a winner, everyone just does things “differently,” and everyone’s opinion – whether it’s researched or not, regardless of resources – is important and cherished.

Trisha: Personal liberty is feeding into an extremely egotistical culture that is missing the responsibility cost.

Aimee: Everyone is a winner, everyone gets their ego stroked and there is little merit in winning anymore.  In that way you don’t have to take responsibility for anything you do!

Trisha: Exactly – so how do we draw the line to prevent this extreme personal liberty?

Aimee: Make education merit-based again not just a right. There are people who will get into the best schools, get the best grades and those will be the people who work the hardest. That goes for making the team too.  The kid who works out the most and practices the hardest makes the team and those who are lazy don’t make it.

Trisha: But if the local culture of a region or a group puts a child at a disadvantage, and the child doesn’t have the resources, how can s/he have a chance?  For example, you’ve got a lot of poverty-stricken urban and rural areas with out of date books and a lack of computers and classes of 40+ students per teacher.  Even those that work the hardest are stunted.

Aimee: Well I do know that throwing money at the problem isn’t the answer. Washington DC has some of the worst schools in the country and their spending per child is the highest in the nation. (*this was true in 2003, but in 2006, the last time the numbers were calculated, Washington DC ranked third behind New York and New Jersey)

Aimee: This is where the original intent of affirmative action comes in, I think.  It’s just been taken advantage of as a program and is no longer affective. Send the kids to summer school. Or camp. Do year-round schooling. Different programs that are merit-based for the kids.

Trisha: Someone still has to pay for the summer school/camp and schooling. I mean… there is also the appropriation of funds that get “thrown” at the school problem.  Look at the salaries of school superintendants – and the high-ranking government officials overseeing the schools.

Aimee: Yes, but I think a lot of federal funding can be reorganized.

Trisha: Capping the pay infringes on the “capitalist” mentality.

Aimee: Yes. But that’s not what I mean. There’s a lot of wasted funding – programs that don’t work. The system needs an overhaul. I don’t know how to do it, but education needs help in the U.S.

Trisha: And there needs to be a balance of personal liberty for students with meeting certain levels.

Aimee: At a certain point Darwinism takes over. Give the students the choice to enter programs and the ones who want to succeed will. Kids, any more than adults, can’t be forced into education.  They might regret it later, but they can go back to school. I might be overoptimistic or oversimplifying it, but I don’t believe it’s ever too late to learn.

Trisha: But parents aren’t allowing that, currently.  You’ve got so many parents who are suing schools for not passing their “darlings.” And, if not suing, harassing the teachers and staff.

Aimee: Ugh – I’m going to sound like an old lady again – but parents have to be told to trust the schools.  Tort reform – get frivolous law suits thrown out of courts. I’m idealizing.

Trisha: Would LOVE to see that.  But, alas, yes: idealistic. At the same time, I wouldn’t go so far as to “trust” schools.  I don’t know if that’s the right word… I don’t trust schools.  I flubbed my way through most of mine, and I know far too many teachers who do abuse their power and have favorites.

Aimee: I’m not sure what to say!

Trisha: It goes back to responsible parenting… we’re quite cyclical on this topic, aren’t we?  I’m sounding like an old lady, myself, but my parents most certainly knew how I was doing in school and how much effort I was putting in.  (More or less – but definitely more than most parents I see.)

Aimee: If I got in trouble at school my mom and dad would ask me what I did.  Today the parents ask what the teachers did TO the kids.

Trisha: And we’re back to personal responsibility and accountability.  If we can’t force people to be accountable – how do we handle that?

Aimee: That’s their choice. We have to let people fail. We collectively hate to see people fail, but some people are going to fail.

Trisha: People failing’s part is fine with me… but how do we get people to take responsibility for their failure – or, in this case, let their kids take responsibility for their failure?

Aimee: Tort reform! Throw out the parents’ law suits!!! There’s no real answer here, you know.

Trisha: I know… but it’s good to ask the questions.  I don’t know if enough people are asking questions and trying to get to the root of the problem.

Aimee: I agree with you on that.

Trisha: And, with the shakiness of personal responsibility/loss of critical thinking – I don’t know that people realize they should be asking questions.

Aimee: I worry about that actually. I worry that when the public goes to the polls to elect an important official that they don’t know the issues.  They don’t read the paper – or the internet – and understand what the candidates stand for.  My faith in the American public is shaky at best. All because of the lack of critical thinking.

Trisha: And the problem seems to be coming from both extremes: excessive personal liberty = and the loss of personal liberty

Aimee: Well there are similar problems in Japan frankly.

Trisha: The government, as it’s moving with its legislation, from No Child Left Behind to the Patriot Act to the new Health Care, is not supporting personal liberty or personal accountability, and the two really have to go hand in hand.

Aimee: The parents get upset because the kids aren’t pushed enough – they want personalized attention, things like that.  It’s different, but similar.  Too much basis in conformity – but wanting to be ahead of the pack too.  Think of it this way, you wouldn’t give your teenager personal freedoms if he wasn’t responsible enough for them.

Trisha: So… almost the opposite sides of two coins

Aimee: Yes. Until the American public is ready for the freedom – can take personal responsibility, maybe the public they can’t have the freedom.

Trisha: Also, though, with the teenager, you have to start somewhere.  If the teen hasn’t the chance to prove responsibility because he’s so sheltered, where do you go from there?

Aimee: That’s a parent-eyed view and a devil’s advocate stance.

Trisha: That’s a hard one because the people who do have that responsibility are punished.  It’s like the responsible teen who gets grounded and restricted because of the troublesome sibling.

Aimee: You’re right.  I don’t believe in so much legislation anyway.

Trisha: Nor I.  I’m for small government, personally, and LMTFA… (if that’s an appropriate acronym for our professional-ish debate.)

Aimee: We’re back to the same question – how do we convince the public to take personal responsibility for their actions so that they can have all of the personal freedoms they crave?  AND on the other side of the coin, how do we convince the Japanese people that they WANT personal freedoms so their personal responsibility is rewarded and they can think and live creatively and critically?

Trisha: … While allowing them to have their personal liberty of ignorance and wanting to be safe?

Trisha: I think, on the Internet, there are subcultures that are having conversations on this (like you and I are), and that, in and of itself, is a positive movement.

Aimee: It is clear that if something doesn’t happen soon, the U.S. is going to lose its place of prominence on the world stage.  And Japan is not going to be its successor. I agree that there are movements. Grassroots movements.  Who is it that said, “Never stop believing that a small group of like minded people can change the world.  Indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”  It might have been Margaret Mead.

Trisha: I believe so, yes!  Perhaps a future conversation should be how the Internet is affecting change in global education?

Aimee: Phew, that’s a big one. The bottom line is that until people can take responsibility for their actions, personal liberties will be further and further eroded in society as the governments look to legislate and assign blame. They will do so with good intentions – the intent of protecting the people, but we will end up with a society of robots who cannot think for themselves.

Trisha: Or, a rebellion.  At least in the U.S.  (I don’t know about Japan.)  There are an awful lot of grassroots movements of people willing to fight – quite literally and not just in paper – to maintain their constitutional rights.

Aimee: The thinkers vs. non-thinkers?

Trisha: If we take some positive steps in real education reform that takes into account personal accountability, we could avert those negative outcomes.

Aimee: And that’s why we’re both educators, isn’t it?

Trisha: Not even as black and white as thinkers vs. non-thinkers.

Aimee: Writers and educators and thinkers!

Trisha:   Yes – absolutely.  And, at least for us, being able to write and communicate is the basis for all this.  Good writing embodies critical thinking and looking at the many sides of an issue.

Watch this space and also Trish’s blog! Next week we’re going to post some follow-up, responses and further thoughts on these issues.

Teaching Writing – lesson one

I have a doctorate – a doctor of arts degree – from George Mason University.  The National Center for Community College Education is at GMU and the degree is through the center.  Students go into the program with a Master’s Degree, and then in addition to courses in a major (mine is composition, but you can do art, science, math, whatever) they have to take five education courses, do an internship, and take comprehensive exams in both the education department and the major department. Then comes the dissertation. It’s a practitioner’s degree, not a theoretical degree, so not a doctor of philosophy.  My dissertation was pedagogical – I studied a classroom of students to whom I was teaching a research writing course at Temple University in Japan.   Obviously a lot of what I do as a writer is informed by the teaching of writing that I’ve done and the research contained therein.

But the main lesson that I’ve learned is that all the teaching of writing in the world could not prepare me for the experience of writing my own fiction.

With my students, I’m demanding and I insist they write on a schedule.  I create assignments so that they do specific parts of the essay or story on a timeline.  I realize that I force them to write every day so they get into the habit.  I also force them to consider ideas from varying points of view.  In every class I’ve taught, except for the fiction classes, my students have to read an article from the “Outlook” section of the Washington Post on Sundays and then write one paragraph of summary and one paragraph of response.  To me, thinking is part of writing.

My mantra when I teach is that thinking is the hardest part of writing. If you can get the ideas together, the words are easy to just jot down on paper.  Where most people fail is in the cognition – the actual coalescence of ideas.  But that idea is really difficult to explain to someone who is afraid of writing.  So many people I’ve found are simply afraid of writing! Expressing oneself is an important part of being human, and expression on paper is an extension of the self.

I think about all these things when I write myself.  As I edit the two books that I’ve written, I understand my students more and more.  Revision is the hardest, but the most necessary part of writing.  No one’s work is perfect on the first go.

I’m sure I have many more lessons to learn as I go through this process of writing.  The teacher that I’ve been in the past informs the writer that I am in the present – and hope to be in the future.  The journey is just beginning.