Jerome just showed up at our door after school. He's a 4th grader who walks our dogs every now and again to make a few bucks. We're grateful because he gives our aging pups a little change of scenery and a chance to do their business. We typically chat for a few minutes as he gets their harnesses on and locates a bag for carrying their leavings back home.
"So, what are you writing in school these days?" I asked him, out of the blue.
"Prompts," he said.
"Prompts?" I ask, though I am fully aware of this common classroom practice of making up clever but totally inauthentic reasons for children to write.
"Yeah, we write five paragraphs," continued Jerome, explaining in excruciating detail what I consider to be the sure-fire formula for ensuring that children will learn to hate writing, or at a minimum, never do it again once they escape school.
If their only experiences with publishing are working on "prompts" assigned out of the blue, written for nobody in particular, or when usually nobody they care about will actually receive their efforts, their lasting impression of writing will naturally be "Ugh!" Prompts are typically written just for the teacher, and of course, a grade. We can't expect kids to hunger and dive in to work for developing their unique compelling voices if we feed them such weak literacy nourishment.
Why, I wonder, is it so hard to help children to develop a set of potential authentic recipients for their written creations. All children carry with them built-in audiences of people they care about: family and neighbors, public servants, deployed military, sports and entertainment figures, even school writing contests and class books or newspapers. For each child what must be present is a heartfelt need to become a contributor to the lives of important others, to reach out and touch people in a way that these young authors can develop their potentials as beneficial voices in the world.
The power of writing is NOT in developing some technical skill to be error free in composing something to satisfy or amuse the teacher. Of course, teachers can make wonderful audiences, but guiding children in becoming authors, and that should be the focus of all writing instruction, gets obscured and weakened with prompting kids to respond to concocted situations when truly inspiring school curricula could offer plenty of inspiration worth sharing.
If there was more kid-fascinating sizzle in what is being taught in school, we wouldn't need prompts for writing, just more time. Writing opportunities should prompt the fires of creation and the possibilities of fulfilling communication, not just slowly use up the lives of the kids.