Kim’s son, Matthew, now a junior in high school, is taking an acting class as one of his electives. His assignments have included things like carefully observing an animal for ten minutes and mimicking the way it moves, reflecting on discussions about consciousness and other thought-provoking topics, and most recently, watching a movie and critiquing an actor’s performance. Much to our surprise, he is super jazzed about this class. In fact, as he was completing his most recent assignment–a writing assignment–he said, “I could write all day about things that I care about.”
Matthew, a diehard Tolkien fan, chose to critique Ian McKellan, the actor who portrayed Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. On this particular assignment, Matthew wrote eloquently:
“Although this scene has little to no dialogue, the pure joy elicited from Gandalf is beautifully portrayed, as you can visibly see he is proud of Frodo for completing the almost inconceivable task of destroying the ring. McKellen, although fantastic at portraying a very endearing character, can also wonderfully play a very imposing and at times frightening character.”
“This scene shows the versatility of the actor (and the character, for that matter) and how he can be an extremely sweet and caring grandfather figure at times but when necessary, a strict and firm leader.”
The entirety of Matthew’s paper is this well-written, which is not surprising, even though Matthew received a 3 on his most recent state standardized assessment in English Language Arts, a score which is categorized as “satisfactory,” although it comes with the warning that he “may need substantial support for the next grade.” Given that writing was his second to lowest scoring subtest, it would seem logical that he might need extra support in writing.
But does he?
Schools today are working very hard to figure out how to provide the “substantial support” that children who are floundering–presumably children like Matthew–need to improve. It is not uncommon to “help” such writers by providing remedial instruction on how to write a five paragraph essay, including much assigned, practice in the five paragraph essay. However, when Matthew completes such assignments, they pale in comparison to his Tolkien essay, where he got to choose the topic and was given creative license around form and style.
In trying to piece this together to make it all make sense, we were reminded of what Matthew said at the outset of this assignment: “I could write all day about things I care about.” This comment reminded us of something we once read in Mem Fox’s Radical Reflections. She wrote, “I don’t mind if you, dear reader, forget most of what I have written except for one phrase: ‘to ache with caring.’ This quote, side-by-side with Matthew’s comment, make us question the origins of great writing and the way we help students become stronger, better writers. When do we write best? When we set out to work on our voice or writing conventions? Or, when we get to write about something that makes us “ache with caring?”