Educational reformer John Holt (author of How Children Fail, Teach Your Own, and eight other ruckus-raising books) was an ardent advocate of "unschooling"--the belief that most people learn best on their own, not in conventional classrooms.
Over the years, at least one of Holt's ideas--the concept of "private papers" or ungraded writing projects--has made its way into many composition classes. Here's how Holt described the practice in his article "How Teachers Make Children Hate Reading."
The private paper has proved very useful. In the first place, in any English class--certainly any large English class--if the amount the students write is limited by what the teacher can find time to correct, or even to read, the students will not write nearly enough. The remedy is to have them write a great deal that the teacher does not read. In the second place, students writing for themselves will write about many things that they would never write on a paper to be handed in, once they have learned (sometimes it takes a while) that the teacher means what he says about the papers' being private. This is important, not just because it enables them to get things off their chest, but also because they are most likely to write well, and to pay attention to how they write, when they are writing about something important to them.
Some English teachers, when they first hear about private papers, object that students do not benefit from writing papers unless the papers are corrected. I disagree for several reasons. First, most students, particularly poor students, do not read the corrections on their papers; it is boring, even painful. Second, even when they do read these corrections, they do not get much help from them, do not build the teacher's suggestions into their writing. This is true even when they really believe the teacher knows what he is talking about.
Third, and most important, we learn to write by writing, not by reading other people's ideas about writing. What most students need above all else is practice in writing, and particularly in writing about things that matter to them, so that they will begin to feel the satisfaction that comes from getting important thoughts down in words and will care about stating these thoughts forcefully and clearly.
(John Holt, "How Teachers Make Children Hate Reading." Redbook, November 1967; reprinted in The Underachieving School, 1969)
Whether you're a teacher or a student, do you think the private paper is a worthwhile exercise? Can writing be learned without feedback from teachers? Tell us your thoughts by clicking on "comments" below.
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Image: The Underachieving School by John Holt (1969; rpt. by Sentient Publications, 2005)