Sometimes in his excitement at performing tricks, my little Chihuahua forgets how to speak. His mouth opens, but no sound comes out. The tension is just too great. I have to command him to “hush” so that he can find his bark.
Often I feel something similar in sitting down to write. Given the cacophony of voices competing for attention, the bookshelves already full of texts, and the explosion of words and images that is the Internet, what could any individual have to add of any worth?
The more conscious students are of their own smallness in the world, the more likely they are feel a similar reticence, a sense that they have “nothing to say.” High school students may be especially prone to this, and perhaps middle school students to a lesser extent. Of course, in a writing class they have to draft something, or they won’t have anything on which to practice their revising and editing skills.
One way to help students find a starting point is to ask them what they feel “hushed” about. What topic annoys them specifically because they have no say in the matter? If they did have a voice on the issue, what would they expect to be done?
Some school systems may be more comfortable than others in encouraging students to explore their frustrations. This nation being as large and varied as it is, I’ve known of classes in which any expression of irritation toward a parent was forbidden as disrespectful, and others in which virtually anything was considered fair game. In any case, a personal journal can be promoted as a safe outlet for venting and exploring ideas, and those ideas can later be mined for appropriate topics.
When my Chihuahua finally speaks, it is because he wants something—a treat, my attention for play, or to warn someone away. (Chihuahuas are noisily protective.) When I begin to write, it is because I want something as well—generally to convince someone of a point. If we can encourage students to explore their own wants in writing, they may just discover that they also have something to say, and that they care enough to say it well.