Three Things My Ukulele Taught Me about Writing

by Patricia A. Dunn
Photo of a green ukeleleGeorge Harrison thought everyone should learn to play the ukulele because it was easy to learn, small enough to take everywhere, and fun to listen to. (He’s right about the second.) So I got one, took a quick lesson from a friend, and then set out on Google and YouTube to see what was what. And now, three months later, it’s all I can do to sit here typing. I really want to go downstairs, take out my shiny green ukulele, open my ever-growing pocket file of downloaded chords and lyrics, and torture the household once again with my now-accompanied caterwauling.

My adventures learning to play the ukulele have reinforced for me three principles teachers and parents should remember about how students learn to write.

1) Good Writing Involves Choice

I was playing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” after fifteen minutes, but after another fifteen I was bored, though I had not perfected it.  Like the basic five-paragraph theme often foisted on young writers, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” is one of the first songs new ukulele players learn. It’s got four easy chords, everyone knows the words, and it’s mercifully short. It’s fun to play something that’s an actual song, as opposed to an exercise preparing to play an actual song.  (Are you hearing this, grammar worksheet pushers?)  But no one can keep practicing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” (even if it is also the ABC song).

“Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” doesn’t keep me coming back. I want to play songs more important to me, more complex, more fun to sing. The lure of my own agenda motivates me to troll the Internet searching for songs I want to play. I’m thrilled when I find one that looks easy (“Sloop John B”), but I also download the more challenging ones with quick and complex chord changes (“City of New Orleans”), hoping I can build up my skills to play it.

Getting better at writing (or playing an instrument) involves an investment in practice that goes way beyond what happens during the school day. Learners need the personal investment, curiosity, and ownership that come from learning something for their own purposes, not those of their teachers, parents, or testing companies. (See #12 of the National Council of Teachers of English Standards (scroll down), which emphasizes the need for students to “accomplish their own purposes.”)  No matter how hard the Common Core State Standards stamp their feet and make demands, experienced teachers know that the learner has to be involved in the choice of what’s being learned. Teachers need to help students find the writing projects about which they—the students—can be excited.

2) Only Passion Drives Practice

Learning to play the ukulele is hard. So is writing. Both take a lot of practice, so much that only passion can compel the learner to invest enough (mostly joyful) time in getting better. Yes, sometimes writing comes easily, with a high word count yield for time spent at the computer. But sometimes even one page of good stuff makes your back sore from sitting so long. But you take a break and come back because the project is meaningful.

No one is making me practice the ukulele. I play even though I’m shredd
Photo of callused finger tipsing my fingertips from pressing on the strings—(especially my poor little pinky. What’s with that E chord?) But I do it anyway because I feel joy and power in creating these sounds, and I’m proud of the calluses that are building on my string fingers, calluses that have impressed even my musician nephew.

In the same way good writers need fluency, an ease of writing quickly, good ukulele players need the fluency of muscle memory: when their fingers “remember” which chords to play. That fluency (in writing or playing) comes from passion-driven practice.

3) Intrinsic Motivation Matters

The Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts have much to say about students describing the motivations of miscellaneous characters in literature. But are real students always motivated to write about character motives? Doubtful. If someone threatened me with a bad grade in Ukulele if I didn’t practice difficult chords or keep playing baby songs until I perfected them, I’d either find a new teacher or a new hobby. If they made me practice something I hated, I’d give it up as soon as I had the power to do so, which partly explains the hatred of writing among many students as well as the high dropout rates in high school and college.

Good writers develop fluency, which comes from writing willingly and frequently—way more often than what happens in the average classroom. This means that students need to find writing projects they care enough about to work on at home, on the bus, or even in a boring class when they’re supposed to be doing something else. It’s called intrinsic motivation, which standards and tests can’t provide. It comes from the learner. Young people already have curiosity and energy, ingredients needed for intellectual growth.  It’s the wrong kind of schooling that takes it away.

We need to let teachers help students find those ingredients again by designing writing projects, with their students, that will make students want to keep plugging away at that blog, or travel narrative, or movie review, or infographic, or sports story, or video, or presentation, or letter-to-the-editor, or podcast, or novel, even when they’re tired.  The best thing parents and teachers can do to help students progress as writers (or ukulele players) is to help them discover what they want to work on, and then help them get better.

Good teachers already know that student writers, like all creative artists, are driven by passion, choice, and intrinsic motivation. Good teachers just need to be allowed, once again, to invite students back to challenging, authentic writing projects, even when their fingers are sore.

Patricia A. Dunn is a former high school teacher and two-year college instructor who has written several books on the teaching of writing, including Grammar Rants: How a Backstage Tour of Writing Complaints Can Help Students Make Informed, Savvy Choices About Their Writing (2011), co-written with Ken Lindblom.  She is currently an Associate Professor of English at Stony Brook University in New York, where she teaches current and future teachers of English and writing. You can read more of Patricia’s ideas about the role engagement plays in writing and also about how “bad grammar teaching” can impede a young writer’s progress.   She has a new book, Disabling Characters: Representations of Disability in Young Adult Literature (2015).

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7 thoughts on “Three Things My Ukulele Taught Me about Writing

    • Thanks for the reblog! Good luck to your son. I admire his pursuit of his music and his song-writing, and his decision to be a double major in college.

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