Finding Motivation in Education: My Personal Literacy Narrative

“Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it.” J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, and one of my personal heroes, spoke these words in an interview about the value of writing. I agree with her because, not only is her series one of the first that inspired my love for fiction, but I have, since reading it, experienced the magic of words myself. Words derive their power from the connections they create among people. Words are magical because they create extraordinary effects. Writing is, and has been for many years, the primary way that I express myself and understand the humanity that courses between all of us.

I learned, early on in my life, the effect that words can have on an audience. I practically grew up onstage. When I was five years old I saw my first musical. It wasn’t a Broadway show, and it was far from professional. It was a local children’s theatre company’s production of Schoolhouse Rock. But to the tiny, blonde, pig-tailed girl, dancing and singing along in her seat, it was perfect. She looked up at the kids on stage, just like her, having fun and being themselves while they spoke and sang, and she said, “mommy, I want to do that!” Little did she know what an impact that statement would have on the rest of her life.

I went on to play roles that I never dreamed of playing. I got to portray many a princess and American icon, my favorite of which was Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. But the best part of every show was not, as many people believe, actually being on stage. The best part was meeting the audience afterwards. The kids believed that they were actually meeting the characters of their favorite stories, while parents saw nothing but joy on their children’s faces. The older people saw hope for the future in those of us who performed, telling us to never give up on our dreams. These moments are the ones that gave me an understanding of the true impact that a well delivered set of words can have on a group of people. The stories that composers and playwrights wrote, many years earlier, still created hope and unforgettable connections among that people that experienced them, performers and audience members alike.

As I grew, the more that I realized that the elements that make a compelling piece of art, are the same both on the stage and on the page. When you create a piece of theatre, you have to think about the purpose, context, and audience, just like in writing. You also address the five canons of western writing: invention, style, arrangement, memory, and delivery, when you create a piece of theatre. The costumes, sets, music, and characters, all have to come together to convey a unified theme to a specific audience, just like the setting, characters, and plot of any good novel.

These similarities led to my love of reading and writing. At first, I spent a lot of time with fiction. However, I realized that in reading and writing fiction, I was often still thinking about my own life and feelings. Once I realized this, I slowly transitioned from fictional characters to nonfiction essays. I found myself writing every day, about everyone and everything I could get my hands on. I would take a journal everywhere, stopping often to sit at cafes or restaurants and simply describe the things around me. Sometimes certain people and situations would develop into entire stories without me even realizing it. It was like a seriously intense form of people watching. I eventually started a blog, publishing my daily findings and reflections about living as a modern student. Almost instantly, people that read my writing reached out to me, saying that I had put into words exactly how they were feeling, whether it be about college decisions or navigating relationships. It was through writing like this that I found my voice and discovered that I was never truly alone if my audience was experiencing it all with me, just like when I was onstage.

Because of my relationship with theatre and writing, I learned, early on, the importance of connecting with an audience. Almost everyone learns as children, in school, the pragmatic importance of writing, through elements such as style, invention, and arrangement. Education focuses on following rules and writing for a grade, causing many kids to believe that is all that constitutes “good writing.” However, very few young kids in modern society have the privilege of also experiencing the more emotional elements of rhetoric, such as delivery and memory. I was very lucky to experience all of these rhetorical elements simultaneously, which I believe fostered my early passion for reading and writing.  This is because true, comprehensive rhetoric “studies human sentiments, passions, dispositions, and purposes in order to affect [the audience]” (“General Introduction”, 12), not just arrangement and style. This emotional connection, which I found so important in my childhood, and which eventually led me to my career choice, is often absent in writing education today.

In her essay, “Composition in the University,” author, Sarah Crowley, discusses a point very similar to this, as she looks at the attitude of older students in relation to writing and makes an argument for the dissolving of a required freshman composition class. She writes that “the fact of the requirement provides first-year composition with an institutional motivation rather than a rhetorical one” (Crowley, 8). I completely agree with her idea that composition classes such as this create highly artificial and unmotivated writing, aimed only at passing the class. However, I think the problem begins much before the university level. Students possess an “institutional motivation” for writing as early as Kindergarten, when they are all told to copy a written sentence as precisely as they can, regardless of what the sentence actually says.

As an aspiring teacher, I find these ideas especially interesting. I think that too often, in education, we aim to make our writing objective, removing any personal opinion and feeling in order to please a teacher or editor, and earn good marks. In our education system’s pragmatic attempt to universalize writing, many students find themselves frustrated with the academic box into which they are put, and loose any passion for writing that they may have previously possessed. This is because we, as a society, often forget that writing, while used for practical purposes, only grew so rapidly because of its profound effect on the human spirit. This can be seen even in the earliest literate communities, such as the ancient Greeks, in which writing was “much more than a recording and labeling device, and done to express (strongly in many cases) attitudes and dispositions” (Enos, 11).  And this idea continues among the modern American student. While a great deal of student writing occurs as a response to studies, “contemporary research confirms that, outside of the freshman classroom, writing always occurs within some motivating context” (Crowley, 8).  As a teacher, I hope to help bring passion to my classroom. I think students need to write about the things they are passionate about. I think we need to find a way to incorporate what motivates students outside the classroom into the universalized curriculum that we have created.

I was lucky enough, as a young student, to never feel like writing was a burden. From an early age, due to my connection with the arts and its audiences, I was in awe of the power of writing and loved sitting down with a blank page. However, I am one of very few students who feels that way. Therefore, I believe that it is absolutely necessary to give the emotional, effectual side of writing an equally important role in the education of young children. This belief  is continuously backed up, not only by my own background, but also by research and the articles that I have read in regards to the educational and rhetorical situations of today. We must develop a way to show students, before the university level, the effect that their opinions and feelings can have on the world around them, instead of forcing these opinions out of them and teaching them that they must write the way that a teacher demands. We must find a way to, as JK Rowling would say, teach students the true magic that words can put into effect.

Works Cited

Crowley, Sharon. “Composition in the University.” Composition in the University, PDF ed., U of Pittsburgh P, 1998, pp. 1-18.

Enos, Richard Leo. “Writing Without Paper: A Study of Functional Rhetoric in Ancient Athens.” On the Blunt Edge, edited by Shane Borrowman, Parlor Press, 2012, pp. 3-13.

“General Introduction.” Introduction. The Rhetorical Tradition, edited by Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1990, pp. 1-16.