The Benefits of Writing 9: Exploring and Expressing Enthusiasms

My students were recently asked to spend about two hours of their lives taking an online test to help them discover what they are interested in, which was supposed to help them discover what they might want to study in college, or at least help them discover what they want to “be” when they grow up. The idea, of course, is that an algorithm will know much better than they do who they are and what they find appealing.

Meanwhile, most of the writing required of my students by my stage and district involves asking them to read three articles or essays about a subject they may or may not find interesting, and then write their own synthesis essay about that topic. The idea, of course, is that when all students write what is, essentially, the same essay, an algorithm will be able to score it, and will know much better than a teacher how well they write and can measure it accurately.

The absurdity here is that there is a very simple way to both help students discover what they are interested in and to develop and assess their writing skills – a way that requires no algorithms: let students write about their enthusiasms. Encouraging students to write about their enthusiasms has the obvious advantage of built-in engagement. Who doesn’t like to write, or at least talk, about what they are interested in? Students can write with some authority about what they know about, as opposed to the random topics supplied by prompts. Writing about your enthusiasms also helps you discover what your enthusiasms are, explore them, explain them, and understand them yourself in ways that go beyond and algorithm spitting a “result” at you.

I began this Moving Writers series of posts talking about how writing helps you “know thyself.” I mentioned student enthusiasms in that post, and I’d now like to take a deeper dive into them. The first week week of school, I have my students fill up several pages of their writer’s notebooks with topic maps. The first and most important of those maps is the Enthusiasm Map. Students create a web of everything they love, like, and are interested in: people, places, hobbies, media, school subjects. I can tell a lot about my students from what they write on those maps – and what they don’t write. If some students seem disengaged with school, it is also because they seem disengaged with life in general – they have almost no enthusiasms. For those students, taking any spark of enthusiasm they show and fanning it to a flame, and helping it spread to other possible enthusiasms, becomes one of my goals. On the the other hand, some of my students have enough different enthusiasms to fill up an entire page. For those students, I try to help them focus in on the best ones to write about, and to see patterns of interests that might be worth exploring as possible career paths or majors. You like Legos, engines, sculpture, and Minecraft? Considered engineering?

Once students have created their Enthusiasm Maps – usually the work of 15 minutes – I ask them to write an Enthusiasm Essay about one of the items from their maps. Some enthusiasms are about appreciation – a student who really likes the films of Stanley Kubrick, or instance, or a particular lake in the Adirondacks. Other enthusiasms are actual activities – flow experiences like playing volleyball, biking, acting… or drawing comic strips. I usually give students some model essays to read. They include my own essay about the comic strip Peanuts, written as the strip ended in 2000 and my essay about hand-drawn animation, written as Disney’s Florida animation studio closed in 2003. But I also share with them enthusiasm essays about sports, music, and barbecue. My wife, who teaches seniors, has her students read Octavia Butler’s “My Positive Obsession” about her love of writing, and then has students write about their own positive obsessions.

Of course, some students, the “Dirths” will resist the idea of enthusiasm…

These students may need some help discovering their enthusiasms, but they may also need some help figuring out how to write about them…

By looking at not only why you like your enthusiasm, but its history and impact and connections to other topics, you may find out you’ve only been skimming the surface of your enthusiasm!

Unlike prompts designed to be standardized enough to be scored by an algorithm, writing about your own interests is instantly personalized. The phrase “personalized” learning is thrown around a lot lately – and usually means giving students a series of tasks to do on a computer, where – you guessed it – an algorithm decides their level of competency and moves them on to questions at their level. Real personalized learning is actually personal – it taps into what students love and helps them discover why they like what they do. In the end – it can actually do what the algorithms claim to do: help them find out what they might want to do with their lives…

John Dewey once wrote that “There’s all the difference in the world between having something to say, and having to say something.” So much of what the system asks students to write is simply for them to “say something.” Allowing them to write about what they love helps them to discover they actually have something to say. Author Frederick Buechner, writing about vocation, said that your calling in life is the “place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” The world’s deep hunger is a topic for another day, but helping students find their “deep gladness” is something all writing teachers can aspire to… enthusiastically.

Images via Created by David Lee Finkle

How do you tap into student interests and enthusiasms? You can connect with me on Twitter @DLFinkle or engage on Facebook at to continue the conversation.  

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