One day in sixth grade I left my books at home. So, Mrs. Watts assigned me to write 500 times I will not forget my books. I fought the tedium by writing all the I’s, then all the will’s, then ten complete sentences. And on and on.
The next day, I took these 500 sentences to Mrs. Watts who tore them into shreds in front of me. And, pointing to the boots I had left at school the afternoon before, gave me another assignment: I will not forget my boots, written 500 times. As I wrote, all I could think was that the two sets of sentences were different by only one letter. And that I’d never use this punishment when I was a teacher.
Actually, the punishment worked. For the rest of the year, I remembered my books and my boots. Students weren’t wearing boots by the time I became a teacher. But they were still carrying books. And plenty of times in my thirty years of teaching, books were in the wrong place—back home on the kitchen table or in a locker or at the other parent’s house. Still, I held to my resolve. Here’s why:
- Good things are associated with rewards, bad things with punishment. We don’t punish students with movies and basketball games. But when writing is a punishment, we make it distasteful.
- Repetitive sentences suck the creativity out of writing. Students learn to associate writing with boredom.
- Writing lines wastes time. I could have used some coaching in how to remember my boots and my books. Some of my students needed help to develop empathy for others, respect for school property, or alternate ways to express anger. Punishment sentences don’t move kids toward wholeness.
English teachers work hard to excite students about writing. And they will thank you not to use their class as a punishment. I’ve known English teachers to threaten to punish students by assigning math worksheets.
Writing is good. It helps students process course material, hone communication skills, improve thinking, capture memories, clear minds, reach to others, and the list goes on. Let’s keep writing good.