Writing shouldn’t be a punishment

So let’s stop using it as one

The author is an instructor for the Language Education and Development (LEAD) program at Butte College and a freelance writer who regularly contributes to the CN&R.

It’s happened again: Another person has been given a writing assignment as punishment.

Recently, a judge in Nevada ordered a 25-year-old male drug offender to write a report on “the nonsensical character” of California’s medical-marijuana program. The offender was arrested outside a Stateline casino after selling pot to an informant.

Why didn’t the judge have the young man read a book on medical marijuana or complete mathematical problems computing statistics pertaining to medical-marijuana users? Why should writing a report—or writing in any form—be a punishment? What does that teach people about writing?

In the writing classes I teach at Butte College, students often show up exhibiting all manner of what I call “writing trauma.” They’ve been taught to loathe an activity they probably loved as kindergarteners, when they first grasped pencils with chubby hands and scrawled the letters of their names.

Over time, they’ve lost their original zest for the written word. Throughout years of education, they’ve had to write sentences, essays, reports, and all manner of other assignments—all in the name of “discipline.”

Besides having to endure writing punishments, students often are expected to write about subjects they don’t care about and take positions (in writing) on issues with which they don’t agree. How quickly we kill a person’s natural passion for learning and, yes, writing. But then, we manage to quash children’s natural delight in many activities that are their birthright: dancing, art-making, daydreaming and much more.

Not long ago I had the pleasure of observing author Karen Benke lead a workshop at Lyon Books in downtown Chico. The children in the workshop were a little reluctant to write at first, and when they did finally write, they were hesitant to share their writing. As Benke brought more and more magic and fun into the writing process, however, these children lit up and really began to pen some laudable masterpieces. Writing was a gift to experience, an exhilaration to behold—not a punishment to suffer, not a pastime to despise.

I can only shudder when I think of the number of times that, across the nation (and beyond) this school year, writing will be used as a punishment. Administrators, teachers, parents, and yes, even judges, hear my plea: Cease to use writing as a punishment. My job is hard enough without having students arrive in my class with an almost visceral hatred for writing.