In praise of low-stakes writing

by Cayt Mirra

When I was a teenage girl I was saved by journaling. It gave me an outlet for my angst. It was a vessel for my anger. It soothed me and allowed me to process my feelings. I would write in it every night. I named it – phrased the entries as letters as if I were telling a trusted friend all of my secrets.

I credit my skill at writing to the hours that I spent journaling in my formative years. It is the reason my teachers always went on about the strong ‘voice’ that came through in my writing (although at the time I had no idea what this meant, but I knew it was a compliment and I liked those).

My journal became a collection of my grief. It was a pretty pathetic collection; I had nothing to complain about really. But I was a fifteen year old girl and so I complained anyway. I wrote pages and pages of swear words – fuck, fuck, fuck – over and over. I made pro and con lists about subjects, about boys, about everything. I wrote terrible poetry. I wrote parodies of my favourite songs. I wrote chain-of-thought think pieces that I thought were profound. They weren’t. I wrote with an honesty that I am not able to write with now, probably because I never write only for myself. This kind of writing feels selfish and indulgent. But once, it was an imperative part of my self-care. As crucial as eating and breathing.

Many times I have attempted to use this secret of emotion-management as a teacher – to impart my wisdom to all the girls I teach who have feelings they don’t understand. I have seen countless young women struggle to understand themselves, to have confidence in their brains and bodies, to interact positively with others, and to stand up for their own rights. I wanted to empower them. I envisioned groups of girls sitting outside at lunch time, surrounded by nature, pouring their feelings onto the page, unburdening themselves of their troubles, and improving literacy outcomes at the same time.

But any attempts at this have been complete failures. I have searched for the right way to introduce journaling, and the right group of girls, and the perfect conditions to make it work, and it is never quite right. I have begun to accept that perhaps journaling worked for me because I am, at heart, a writer. I enjoy writing; I find it easy. Writing is a relaxing experience for me. For students who find writing difficult, this is not the way to clear their brain, it just makes them frustrated. They are so used to writing things that get marked, that writing for them is plagued with feelings of stress and inadequacy.

For this reason, I am an advocate for low-stakes writing in classrooms. I would like to see students have more opportunities to practise writing for the purpose of exploring their own ideas and feelings, rather than for the purpose of producing a written product for assessment. Because that shouldn’t be what writing is for. I have seen teachers use writing as  a punishment – the idea of writing lines is based on the premise that writing is unpleasant. I have seen disengaged students write a story they are immensely proud of, only to have it scribbled all over in red pen. I have heard students say that they hate writing.

But writing is so diverse. How can a person hate all writing? Or do they have writing in a school environment? Do they hate having their writing judged against formal conventions that they do not fully understand? Because that seems reasonable. Low-stakes writing presents another alternative: writing that is used as part of the learning process, rather than as an end result. This includes brainstorming and note taking. It means giving students time to write down their thinking on a topic before they have to talk about it. It means giving students some choice in what they write about. It means giving them space to write for themselves.

It means not correcting the mistakes.

For some teachers, this is a shift in how we think about writing. But students need safe spaces in which to practise using writing as a way of thinking, as a way of processing emotions and reflecting on themselves.

Perhaps, if we give students this space, some of them will be saved by writing, as I was.