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Last fall, Cornwall Manor participated in a pen-pal program initiated by the Wellness Committee. While the experience was rewarding, fun, and yes, even educational (for both residents and students), I wanted to share why I, as chairperson of the Wellness Committee, asked the committee members to establish this program in the first place. 

It has everything to do with the art and skill of writing, writing on paper, not texting on one’s phone. Not only have schools lost the opportunity to teach cursive writing, they’ve lost the opportunity to teach writing itself.

So here are at least six good reasons for teaching writing (letters or otherwise):

  1. While electronic gadgets may seem to have negated the need for writing, drawing the world together more dramatically and providing us with untold amounts of information, it’s just the opposite. They have actually increased the demand for writers. In a complex and changing society, more people are needed who can write, who can order and communicate information and experience.
  2. Writing, for many students, is the skill which can unlock the language arts. Students who have never read often begin to read in a writing program. They have to read their own words to recognize what they’ve said and decide how to say it more effectively. Classmates may even begin to help each other in this way. This eventually should lead to an interest in reading published writers dealing with a variety of subject matter.
  3. Writing is thinking. Writing with the language of words (think mathematics and the language of figures) is the most precise and disciplined form of thinking. When we see what we’ve written (essentially what we’ve said), we often need to reconsider it, refocus it — in other words, think.
  4. Writing is an ethical act, because the single most important quality in writing is honesty. It may be especially important at this time in our history to teach writing, where the difference between the dishonest word and the honest word, between the true and the untrue is revealed.
  5. Writing is a process of self-discovery. It’s a process in which each person attempts to find the meaning of his or her life. We use language not so much to report what we know, but to discover what we know. It’s important that students have the opportunity for disciplined, intensive self-exploration through writing.
  6. Writing is an art, and art is profound play. Art is making, creating, building. It’s an experience in attempting to add something to the world that was not there before.

Some of what I’ve written here was outlined in the Goals/Objectives I gave to the teachers last school year. Having said all this, I should end with the understanding that not all students will respond well to this philosophy, the knowledge of which we’re all already painfully aware. We simply need to respect our efforts, and theirs. If a student does not perform well at first, it’s important to understand that “failure” is an essential part of the writing process, so it helps for students to understand this as they are usually subject to a success-centered curriculum in schools. Your letters back and forth during the year are not graded (think spelling and grammar). We’ve created a safe place for students to think and compose, essentially for the first time, on paper without criticism. This allows for future communication on paper, awakening a new (writing on paper?? What a concept!) and exciting form of contact, not only with their peers, but with their grandparents and friends who may live a few states away.

We are, after all, listeners, an audience eager to respond to young writers who are just beginning to find their voices. Here is experience that is fresh, language in the process of being discovered, forms in the process of being explored, voices growing strong in their own way.

Simply put, we’re helping them discover themselves.

John Keosseian is the chairperson for the Wellness Committee at Cornwall Manor.

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