When I was in sixth grade, everything about my school was chaotic, except for Mrs. Ingersoll. She was loud, whether she was laughing or yelling, and she loved to read my poetry. I didn’t do much math that year, but I wrote a lot for my audience of one.
Sixth grade has changed since then. Many teachers and students are now pressed by standardized testing, which can ignore the importance of creative expression to young learners, undervaluing both its social-emotional and academic impact on children.
We tell young children to “use their words,” but we also silence them. Every adult who spends time with children has told them to be quiet, or wished they would stop telling their endless stories, or asking so many questions. Yet their chatter and wild wonderings have much purpose. Vivian Gussin Paley, teacher and early childhood educator, writes that dramatic play and storytelling are how children make sense of the world and learn to work with each other: “We learn to know what we are thinking about by the ways in which we play.” Creative writing is play-filled writing.
Later, as children grow, we complain that they don’t tell us anything. We ask them to write in school, but we are less interested in what they express than how they express it, responding by correcting spelling and grammar — which is, after all, what we are able to measure. We can’t easily measure empathy or the ability to work with others, but those skills come about through meaningful play and self-expression.
Before children can work well with others, they have to learn to communicate with themselves, to understand what they are feeling, and what they need and want. Poetry and personal narrative help children make sense of their lives by allowing them to talk to themselves through writing....