We live in a technical world. People rarely see one another face-to-face anymore, which is why writing has become our hypothetical suit-and-tie. To get a job, one uploads and sends a cover letter and resume. To apply to college, one submits a college essay. To correspond with a colleague, one sends an e-mail. To be engage in online discussions or to communicate on social media, one must post or blog or tweet or comment. More than ever before, we are our words. We live in an age where we can look and act like slobs behind the screen while our words tell a different story. It’s empowering and liberating but also terrifying. Terrifying because too often our students don’t understand the value of formality in writing.
This has become even more apparent as I, a 26-year-old, am both exposed to and part of a generation of socially illiterate people. We, as well as our students, understand text language, chatting, posting, and tweeting, but our colloquial language seeps into our every day interactions, handicapping us in other ways.
While students can effectively communicate with their peers, they have not received the training to engage in formal written conversations—the types of conversations that drive the academic and business world. In turn, students arrive in college lazily piecing together informal e-mails to their professors that poorly represent their abilities and knowledge. We assume that because they have grown up as Internet babies and that because they are constantly on their phones, they understand the unwritten rules of Internet writing, but they don’t. This year I have made it a point to inject the discussion of voice, formality, and audience into my reading and writing units in an attempt to widen my students’ understanding of and comfort with writing.
In all of my classes I have sought to push my students outside of their comfort zones by exposing them to diverse mentor texts and assignments that force them to play with words. For many students, voice is a challenging concept. They struggle with finding a voice in their own writing, which makes it even more imperative students be exposed to comedic, sardonic, opinionated, and academic pieces. The only way to develop voice is to study it. Not all of the pieces I show my students are high brow; I pull from a variety of sources ranging from blog posts to articles from The Atlantic. But the pieces I choose are intended to show that a wide range of writers and voices exists. The more students understand that there is no one-size-fits-all structure, the sooner they will be willing to dabble in their sarcastic or silly side.
In learning about voice, students must also understand the value in formality and audience in their writing. Too often the e-mails I receive from students look like a long rambling text message. We’ve all received them—the ones riddled with grammatical errors, making us cringe and wonder if they’ve learned anything this year! Teens quickly become comfortable with the fact that teachers are the only people reading their writing. Students become overly comfortable with teachers reading their writing at times. We’re seemingly safe and familiar; we know their quality of work. Exposing their writing to new eyes and ears increases the stakes and makes their work more relevant.
This year, I was determined to push my lower level freshmen beyond the classroom and get them engaging with mentors. I could tell my students to work hard, which I did many times over, but in the general scheme of things, I was their teacher (akin to their mom). So I recruited a Navy Seal, an elementary school teacher, a forensic anthropologist, a photojournalist and others to do the job for me. Students were required to research a career. While they completed their research, I sat down with each student and helped him or her to draft an e-mail that they would send to a professional with which I paired them. Oftentimes I would return to find my students’ e-mails plagued with the same grammatical errors I’d seen so many times before, only this time, I was with them on the sending end.
My mini-conferences turned into minilessons on the importance of editing and the impression it had on the e-mail recipient. Students struggled with how to start their e-mails, how to address the recipient, and how to sign their name at the end. We practiced online manners, thanking the professionals for their time and answers while also noting something the student found to be interesting or appealing from the professional’s answers. In the end, their attention to detail paid off. A forensic science professor who teaches college students included the following in his e-mail:
“I was taken aback when I saw that he is only in ninth grade; I have students much older who do not bother to write properly and it disappoints me. I am not your friend on FB nor are you texting me so no need for brevity at the expense of complete and correctly written sentences. Salutations? Maybe next year.
I have a 12 year old son so I think I will have him peer over my shoulder as I write to Carter so he can see how polished someone so young can be. Thanks!”
Our students are going to college arguably without knowing or understanding the importance of voice, formality, and audience. To prepare them for life beyond high school, we must strive to incorporate real-life writing assignments into our classrooms. While some of my students may never write a research paper after they graduate from high school, I know that nearly all of them will use e-mail, apply for jobs, and engage on social media.
My role as an educator is to help mold and train productive and intelligent citizens and while giving them lifelong skills that translate beyond the classroom. Part of this is continuing to develop and adapt my classroom to better fit the needs of 21st century students. So regardless of what my students do in their free time whether they enjoy lounging in sweatpants with a tub of Doritos or taking selfies in a bathroom mirror, I want them to sound like poised, intelligent, and confident individuals. I want the world to be open to them—both online and in real-life.