Extending Student Writing Choices Beyond Popular Culture

 When the inexperienced student writer chooses to write about topics and ideas that might objectively be viewed as being-lightweight, violent, saccharine sweet or even banal, we must reflect for a moment where these writers draw their inspiration. We tend to write what we know and it is particularly true of our youngest writers. 

Despite our very best efforts to expose and influence students in the direction of quality literature and the mindful use of well-chosen mentor texts, (across different genres) we often find ourselves confronting a battle with the strong influence of popular culture and its heady appeal to impressionable young minds.

Kids who have limited reading experience often have little else upon which to call. We therefore encounter young writers undervaluing their own ideas; their own lives and experiences as potential for writing. They are more likely to defer to films, video games, television shows and pop music for inspirational uptake. 

It is hardly surprising that some of our young writers cling to this type of writing. They may well spend many hours staring at screens in their spare time. It becomes the world they know. What emerges is writing that slavishly rehashes the movies and games, with little that is fresh or original.

When this occurs, I gently alert such writers to the fact that someone else has already written these stories. I then encourage them to be brave writers and have these favoured characters explore new adventures and experiences. I urge the writer to let their imagination run free and move towards the unknown.

The inexperienced writer may also draw inspiration from the lives of their heroes. People they perceive as successful frequently take centre stage in their writing lives. Their own lives, dreams and thoughts are relegated or dismissed as having little potential for writing.

Occasionally we encounter kids drawn towards those authors who specialise in what might be described as subversive or anti-establishment humour. Sometimes, the writing is sprinkled with a liberal dose of silliness. What emerges in the writing workshop is a pale imitation of the published author’s efforts. The writing tends to clunk. It fails to launch.

Rather than being disappointed by these outcomes, we must raise them in discussion with our student writers. We must nudge them to become brave writers. We must set some expectations with respect to originality.
Issues of gratuitous violence in some student writing must also be addressed. 

Many authors write about violence, war, and conflict (domestic and otherwise), but they frequently explore the implications and outcomes of such actions. I don’t have to look hard for such titles on my bookshelf. The writing often focuses on the human condition and the logical consequences of such events. Rather than discouraging students from writing about such matters, we must strive to assist them to develop a broader perspective regarding violence and its numerous impacts. If we can assist these writers to move from violence as merely action to the more important issue of its impact, we will have done these writers a great service.  

Annie Dillard’s words come to mind. Dillard says, ’Be careful what you read, for that is what you’ll write.’ Keep nudging the readers in your care to read books that challenge them to think. We must read in order to write well. We must also talk about our reading and its influences on our writing.

As teachers of writing we must remain committed to extending horizons of our students. Continue to challenge them to think more deeply about the selection of their writing topics. It is a most worthy pursuit. Ask them to explain why it is important for them to write about a particular topic. It will encourage them to think more deeply about their choices.

At every turn encourage the developing writer to be a risk taker. However, remain aware that achieving such an outcome is dependent on your own willingness to also be a brave reader, writer and all round curious learner.

It is so easy to remain in the writing comfort zone, but it is not here that writing will thrive and develop. Every day look for signs of growth towards independence and ownership of writing. You will see it when your writers begin to trust their own thinking and ideas. Watch out for signs of them rising above the low expectation of rehashing popular culture merely because it is an easy option.

Do not be swayed from believing you can accomplish great things with your student writers if you set high expectations for the performance for everyone (teacher included) in the writing community.


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