As NCTE’s National Day on Writing approaches, I’ve been reflecting on writing, its power, its many forms. But also, on how my own writing has changed and why teaching writing is more important now than ever.
Many of us write to make sense of the world. And that’s our goal for our students, right? Give them the power to put pen to paper and make sense of the world around them and their place in it.
Writing is thinking. It’s hoping. Writing is where we create worlds, but also interpret our own. Writing is the exploration of love and pain. Light and dark.
But lately, the world has grown increasingly dark, and even us grown-ups are having trouble making sense of it. We are living in difficult and troubling times. Our nation is deeply divided, and more and more Americans are being marginalized and threatened by the current political and social climate in our country. It seems like every day I read a headline or a news update that doesn’t make sense to me, that has the potential to floor me—one that makes me want to curl into a ball and hide under a blanket and have a good cry. There are days that the world feels hopeless. I have lately found myself in frequent conversations with both my students and colleagues about how to make a real difference, how to put good into the world, how to fight back.
And one way to fight is to write.
When I first started writing, I wrote to find my voice. I wanted to make art, to put something beautiful in the world that didn’t exist before, to create worlds and characters who believe in goodness and love and hope. I would (and still do) write poems about this place that I’m from—a place filled with contradictions, but also incredible beauty and strength. I wrote odes, laments, fantastic fairytales filled with magic.
I didn’t often share my writing, but my writing did get better; my voice got stronger.
But then, few years ago one of my students died of a heroin overdose. When his voice was forever silenced, I felt powerless. I wanted the world to know there was more to this kid than just the single story headline they were reading in our local paper.
So I wrote.
I wrote a lengthy Facebook post about the student as I had known him in my classroom, about the goodness that can and does exist in most people struggling with addiction. It was the first time I had used my writing as platform to impact real change. I read a version of this post at his memorial service, and after, I felt a shift in the way I began to see my own writing. My writing and the way I taught writing became…more. It became an avenue for art and advocacy, creativity and change.
Last year, West Virginia teachers and public employees led one of the biggest labor movements in our nation’s history to protest inadequate health care and low wages. Leaving my classroom during this time was one of the most difficult decisions I have ever made, but I knew that to win our fight, the teacher story needed to be told. The public and our students needed to know why we were leaving our classrooms to demand respect and a living wage.
So I wrote.
I wrote blog posts and essays and op-eds, defending West Virginia public employees and the hard, but necessary choices teachers were making. I responded to comments from anti-education lawmakers directly. I used my writing to called out the lies legislators were (and are still) telling about the teacher work stoppage. I told and will continue to tell the West Virginia teacher story as truly as I can.
In these recent years of advocacy and activism, I have found that though it seems cliché, the pen truly can be mightier than the sword. Writing is the most powerful tool we can give our students and ourselves to combat the powerlessness we sometimes feel.
Writing is the most powerful way can elevate the marginalized voices in our classrooms and communities. Writing is the one of the most powerful avenues of advocacy we and our students possess. Writing has the ability to not just change us, but to change our communities and the world. There is no more powerful weapon in the fight for what is right than an authentic and true voice telling his or her truth plainly and powerfully.
And though I have been penning more non-fiction than I used to, I still write stories filled with magic and light. I’ve started to see these works, creative works, as a another way to fight. My favorite writer, Neil Gaiman, said once, “Fairytales are more than true, not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell that dragons can be beaten.” I use my stories and my poems to combat the single story of Appalachia. To fight for this place that means so much to me. To beat back the dragons–to advocate for my students, my state, my profession, and myself.
I write to fight. And so must we all.
Because if we don’t–if we don’t place pen to paper and show the powers at be that we will not go silently into the dark—hopelessness will win. Fear will win. Intolerance will win. Sexism will win. Dishonesty will win. Racism and bigotry will win.
And we cannot allow that to happen, educators.
We will not allow that to happen.
We will teach our students to fight fear, to fight bigotry one keystroke at a time. We will teach them advocacy with every narrative essay prompt. We will give them power with every poem. We will show them that every carefully shaped letter declares to the world that their voices will not be silenced.
We must teach them that to write is to fight, to write is to change the world.
And educators everywhere need to keep writing, keep putting good into the world, keep fighting for students, for classrooms, for themselves. When you feel powerless, raise up your own voices and write. When the darkness threatens to overtake you, let the glow of your laptop screen push it back. When you are afraid or sad or angry, tell your stories. Tell our stories, teachers.
Writing is how we conquer dragons, how we make the world the place we know it should be. Writing is how we fight.
WVCTE is wondering…
As the National Day on Writing approaches, what motivates you to write? Why do you teach writing? Why should teachers also be writers? We want to hear from you! Email us, send us a message on Facebook, or Tweet us, and use #WhyIWrite in your message!