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I was watching Ali Carr-Chellman’s fascinating TED Talk on how to re-engage boys in schools. My ears naturally perked up when she brought up the topic of writing.

She brings up an issue which I continually deal with when I teach writing to students– topics of interest to students and how willing we are as teachers to accept this as part of their writing.

I’ve often found that one of the most effective ways to get hesitant boy writers going is to ask them to write something which is a take-off on a video game they play. Sure, it’s not high literature, but at least they are putting words to paper and actually writing a narrative.

MOST IMPORTANTLY, they are engaged with their writing. They’re actually excited about developing a storyline using familiar characters and settings. Like all good writers, they are “writing what they know.”

Another point she makes is how teachers often force a genre of writing which is of little interest to many boys, such as personal writing or poetry.

I disagree with her about the poetry part. I’m lucky to work with an amazing teacher of poetry (http://silkeyardley.wordpress.com/) who inspires students to write poetry on a wide variety of topics important to them. Some of the poems are considered “edgy” for elementary school students, yet the students are passionate about their writing.

I’ve definitely found Carr-Chellman’s comments about personal writing to be true, however. When I’ve assigned this type of writing, there’s just something missing– fire in the eyes of many writers. My sense is that this genre of writing holds greater appeal to older writers.

Which brings me to the point of the subtle censorship of writing in schools. When I react to students’ writing, I always dance along a fine line between:

a. what the young writer really wants to write about and

b. what is generally considered acceptable by a teacher’s or school’s standards.

This pertains particularly to violence.

This is a very tricky issue, and I think there’s no simple answer here. But I do think we, as teachers, have to be mindful of that delicate balance between what we censor as teachers and what our students find passionate to write about.

When I look down at a piece of writing a student is madly scribbling (which involves repeated explosions, references to Minecraft, appearance of droves of zombies, and impending world annihilation) I take a breath and weigh the pros and cons of how I’m going to react to this. Before a knee-jerk reaction, I try to gain some perspective, and begin that delicate walk along the tightrope of compromise.

This is yet another example of what makes teaching so demanding and, at the same time, fascinating.

Here’s the TED Talk …