‘The ability to write well is the ability to think well’

This week’s KAC Creative Commonwealth blog entry comes from Elizabeth Prather, a writing teacher from the School for the Creative and Performing Arts in Lexington, just before we celebrate Kentucky Writers’ Day and introduce our new poet laureate.

For 15 years, I worked as a traditional English teacher in a traditional high school and for the last three years, I’ve been teaching creative writing in a high school magnet program. During my career, I have taught every secondary grade level and every possible transmutation of English from freshman Title I Reading to senior AP Literature and everything in between. As a Kentucky teacher, I was also witness to the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) portfolio years and now to the Kentucky Performance Rating for Educational Progress (K-PREP) on-demand assessments. In these roles, I’ve taught students who were National Merit Finalists and students who could barely write a sentence. I’ve taught students who went on to Ivy League degrees and students who are now serving time in jail. But no matter who I taught or what I was teaching, the central focus of my role as an English teacher has been on the skill of writing. The single skill I hope all my students left my classroom with is the facility, the freedom and the fortune of writing.

When I was a student at the University of Kentucky, I was lucky enough to be enrolled in a class taught by Kentucky writer Wendell Berry. The class was called Expository Writing for Teachers. One of the parting custodies Berry entrusted us with was “to arm your students with tools against loneliness and oppression.” Reading is certainly one of those tools, as are the skills of speaking and listening, but, by my lights, writing well is among the more powerful skills a child can possess. The heartbeat of every culture is its writing. A culture’s social, political and theological fabric is born on words. A well-crafted letter of complaint or a letter pledging faithfulness to a beloved, a powerful sermon expressing grace, a movie script defining a life story, a moving speech that calls others to action – these are the skills on which a child and a culture can thrive.

The ability to write well is the ability to think well. When we teach students to write, we are not only teaching them to write, but how to use their minds in critical and productive ways. We are tutoring them in the arts of persuasion and the nuances of a vast and evolving language. We are preparing them to be better citizens, to sort propaganda from useful reasoning and to recognize and tell the truth about themselves and their world.

Teaching writing is a messy business. There are no five easy steps or five simple paragraphs. Teaching a child to mine the ideascape of his beliefs, to artfully render a memory and to do this with honest language devoid of political doublespeak and sentimental euphemism cannot be executed with bubble sheets and a Scantron machine. Teaching a child to write is the intersection of apprenticeship and self-discovery. The lesson is as individual as the student and each student moves at his or her own pace toward mastery, a mastery which, if we are truthful, is a lifelong pursuit. Teaching a child to write honors his or her own story and arms them with those necessary skills to proclaim it.

Kentucky has always been a place where writers and poets have thrived, giving voice to their unique story. As a Kentucky writer and teacher, I am honored to take my student-writers to Frankfort on April 24 to see George Ella Lyon be inducted as Kentucky’s newest poet laureate. She has long championed literacy throughout the Commonwealth through her work as a classroom teacher, visiting poet and working writer. Generations of school children have found their own voice through her exemplary Kentucky poem, “Where I’m From,” a model used in hundreds of Kentucky classrooms as an invitation to claim and proclaim one’s roots.

Elizabeth Prather teaches writing at the School for the Creative and Performing Arts in Lexington. She produces the blog Teach Like Everyone’s Listening, where she writes about teaching creative writing. She lives in Mt. Sterling.

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