By Jelena Primorac
In Croatia, when I say “I teach writing” in response to the question of what I do, I get one of two reactions—a blank stare and frozen smile, or a quizzical look and one of two follow-up questions: “You mean creative writing?” or “Oh, you work with first-graders?” Writing skills as a skill set of their own, writing classes as classes that can stand on their own, beyond fiction writing, are simply not recognized here. And as much talk as there is about the need to shift from the rote memorization demanded of students in schools to something more productive, creative and critical, somehow nobody seems to have realized that it’s precisely writing that can get kids there. Writing skills classes are not “a thing” in Croatia. My goal is to change that.
It’s hard to say what the precise roots of rote memorization as a cornerstone of education here are, but there’s no doubt that socialism, if it didn’t introduce it, certainly embraced it—basing education on rote memorization ensured everyone was given equal opportunity. Writing, unlike memorization, asks students to synthesize knowledge, draw conclusions, and to provide and support theories and develop arguments and opinions. It is a supremely individualistic endeavor that, decades after socialism, still hasn’t found its rightful place in the Croatian classroom.
As few understand what I’m offering when I speak of “writing skills classes” and therefore virtually nobody expresses any interest in them, I’ve found myself resorting to guerrilla tactics to sneak writing into students’ lives—it’s all about angles and bundles. You don’t see the point of writing classes? Okay. How about essay writing classes to prepare you for your Matura? Suddenly, interest. You don’t see the point of writing skills workshops over summer? Okay. How about an English Writing and Adventure Camp where you will go kayaking, hiking, biking and sailing? Again, suddenly emails start coming in.
With camp, while it’s the adventure activities that get the kids pumped up about going, by the end they all understand the value of what they’ve learned. I was elated when a fifteen-year-old who came in dreading the writing part last year volunteered feedback before I had a chance to ask, saying “this is really going to help me at school”. Those words might not sound like much, but to see that transformation, in just one week, from her thinking she was a hopeless case and that writing was an impossible task, to her realizing that she, in fact, could write—she had proof—and that there was nothing mysterious or scary about it, and then for her to outright say that she herself realized the importance of this—it meant the world to me. Mission accomplished. Guerrilla warfare a success.
With seniors, interest in classes disappears after they’ve accomplished their goal and taken their Matura—I really wish I’d reached the ones I’ve worked with sooner and had a chance to teach them more. With younger kids, right now I shift them into news writing classes after their introductory essay writing course—the usefulness of such classes is also obvious to all. The benefits of writing classes, however, are myriad, it’s not just about “successfully” producing a text.
Writing skills classes can build self-confidence. Writing can help us work through confusion or trauma, set our imaginations free and build our creativity muscles; writing can help us grow as people by encouraging empathy and introspection. It helps us understand the world around us and ourselves. And of course, writing always, by its very nature, forces us to think logically and critically. Writing is the strongest tool we have for learning as it helps us better process and remember information. As for developing writing skills themselves, the only way for kids to become good writers is for them to write consistently and get feedback on that writing.
If it takes bells and whistles to get students in Croatia (and the region) to join classes that will get them the practice and feedback they need, then bells and whistles they will get—I will find more ways to sneak writing into students’ lives. A few battles may have been won, but the war is still on, and I’ve got other tactics up my sleeve. Writing skills are undervalued here, and I won’t stop until that changes.
About the author
Jelena Primorac is a teacher, writer and translator and owner of Speak Up konverzacijski tečaj engleskog jezika. She holds an MA in Teaching Writing and an M.Ed. in English Language Education.