Friday, March 24, 2017

How Not To Teach Writing

Imagine how crazy it would be.

An English teacher stands in front of a class and explains, "For every thought you have about the prompt, there is only one correct sentence that can use to express that thought. I'll be grading your essays based on how many of the correct sentences you use."

Nobody teaches writing that way. Nobody says, "Okay, if you have an insight about Jake's injury in The Sun Also Rises, there is on correct sentence for expressing that thought" or "On today's essay about parenting, I'll be looking for seven particular correct sentences that should be used to express these thoughts."

Certainly nobody approaches the use of words in real life in this way. Nobody says, "No, you can't be serious about this job because you didn't even try to say the right sentence," or "No, if you really loved me, you would have said the correct sentence for expressing it."

No, the entire history of human expression, human literature, human song-- it's about finding new and interesting and surprising ways to say what we have to say. It's about finding ways to express a thought that are perfectly suited to that particular person and time and place and circumstances. We are moved, touched, excited, and enlightened by those who can string words together in completely different and yet completely appropriate ways.

Certainly some of these verbal inventions are better than others. Shakespeare's plays are echoes and imitations of other versions of the same stories, and yet four centuries later his Hamlet and his Romero and Juliet endure because, although he was saying what many other playwrights were saying, he said it better. We admire (at least we should) Shakespeare not just for what he did with the language, but for his rip-roaring robust rearrangement of the language, his willingness to take his tools and hammer them into new shapes that served his needs perfectly. Shakespeare did not get to be Shakespeare by imitating everyone else. He found his own way, and found things that were so much better.

But there is a huge difference between "better" and "the one right way." Shrimp salad with a light dressing is better-- healthier-- than a thick steak with french fries. But it does not follow that I should eat shrimp salad for every single meal. We should not all be wearing exactly the same clothes, driving in exactly the same car, and living in houses with exactly the same floor plans while we listen to bands that sound the same play identical recordings of just a few songs.

This is all obvious-- as obvious as not teaching students to write by demanding they spit out the One Correct Sentence for whatever thought they're having.

And yet  much of writing instruction and assessment assumes a One Correct Sentence model. Error-centered instruction, where we focus instruction on all the mistakes we're supposed to root out and avoid, seems to assume that if we slice away all the Bad Things, we'll be left with the perfect sentence for our thought, and not just some sad, filleted dishrag of a sentence.

And standardized testing at times comes so very close to sending exactly the wrong message-- there's one correct answer and there's one correct sentence for expressing that answer. Just select it.

This is why, frankly, so many teachers either avoid teaching writing or just do it badly-- it cannot be reduced to a formula and it does not involve a single correct answer for each problem, so it's hard to teach and hard to assess. Even the giants of literature cannot agree on what would be a good way to express a particular thought. Mark Twain loathed James Fenimore Cooper's classic American novels, Faulkner thought Twain a hack, and some of the greatest literary insults have been delivered author-on-author:

On Jack Kerouac: “His rhythms are erratic, his sense of character is nil, and he is as pretentious as a rich whore, sentimental as a lollypop.” — Norman Mailer

On Mark Twain: “[A] hack writer who would not have been considered fourth rate in Europe, who tricked out a few of the old proven ‘sure fire’ literary skeletons with sufficient local color to intrigue the superficial and the lazy.” — William Faulkner

On Hemmingway: “I read him for the first time in the early Forties, something about bells, balls and bulls, and loathed it.” — Vladimir Nabokov

On Jane Austen: “I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen’s novels at so high a rate, which seem to me vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisoned in their wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world. Never was life so pinched and narrow. The one problem in the mind of the writer … is marriageableness.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

More than necessary to make my point, but as a genre, author-on-author insults are kind of fun.

The giants of the writing field cannot agree on with any narrow clarity what constitutes good writing. The closer we get to nailing that elusive beast down in one single, specific spot, the more likely we are to kill it dead. Pinning down writing to one specific answer is like deciding that dogs look best in one pose, so you have yours stuffed and mounted in just like that. What you have is not a loving, living animal, but a dead thing trapped in a sad, inadequate simulation of life.

There is no one right pose for your dog. There is no one right way to write.

What we have are choices. In seeing choices, we are often victims of success, because a well-written sentence or essay or story or even just a phrase leaves the reader feeling, "Well, of course. I can't imagine any other way to say it." But there were and are other ways to say it, and some of them, in other circumstances or in the hands of another writer or even just in place of what we see-- those could have been great choices too.

There are always choices.What we need to teach our students is how to see the choices, and then how to decide which choice best serves her purposes, which choice best fits her own voice, what choice best achieves her goals. Instead of looking for the One Right Answer, she needs to look for Her Right Answer, and we need to help her learn to be comfortable with the fact that there are many Perfectly Good Answers available (and she may need to stop stressing about trying to find the One). She needs to find her own voice, her own path, her own way. And there's just no way to standardized that, nor any value in trying.



  1. The idea that writing can be accurately measured via standardized testing is just a fool's errand. We are 16 years into this fiasco and still can't give up the ghost.

    When the unit of writing, as you stated in an earlier post, is an idea (thought, opinion, feeling) it becomes obvious why students struggle so much. We are seeing a generation of kids that have been dumbed down and numbed by endless testing, that original thoughts and ideas have been scrubbed from their radar screens.
    I honestly don't know how you ELA teacher do it.

  2. Well put. But correct your errors of syntax and usage before posting.

  3. another reason english teachers avoid teaching writing . . . the workload; i know 'cause i did it for 30 years. now if i have 88 students per semester (not an unusual load), and they write 2-3 pages per assignment . . . that's 176-264 pages, and let's assume i spend 20 minutes per student . . . that's 1760 minutes . . . 29 hours for one assignment . . . not to mention all the other things we have to do. sigh. there's no real answer, is there? no one correct single sentence answer.

    1. I would give up several limbs to have class loads lie that. I currently have 270 students. I teach history, but I do have students write a fair amount.

  4. NOt only that, but shocker of shockers, there is not one and only one way to solve a math problem. There are multiple approaches and one is not better than another.

  5. There's still time for me to move to your school district before my wanna-be-an-author freshman no longer wants to be an author. This week in "Advanced Freshman English" consisted primarily of drills involving embedded quotes and 3-sentence analyses in an effort to beat Of Mice And Men with a hose Billy Collins-style. *weeps*

    This is what passes for writing instruction in our highly-regarded data-driven school system. *weeps some more*

    1. Very few care whether your freshman wants to be an author. Only that your freshman can deliver a score. It's the same in math. Powers-that-be only care about the score, not whether students understand mathematics and differing theories and different ways of understanding a problem. But as a math teacher and a writer, I want to tell your freshman to write. Write. Not even for the most enlightened ELA class, but because you have stories to tell. Things to say. Write and never stop. And when you are ready, submit. Or self-publish. The opportunities are many.

    2. Thanks - I know you're right, but man, it breaks my heart to hear her NOT like English. She does have a blog where she can spill her guts when she has the time to do so, which helps, but the soul-killing drills are taking their toll.

  6. Maybe we're framing the problem the wrong way. Instead of teaching how to write well, shouldn't we be teaching how not to write badly, and let the writing well part follow in its own time? I am a much better writer now, in late middle age, than I was as a teenager in High School. That would be due to writing and reading a lot over the years between then and now. I also finally like the novels I was assigned back then, because now as an adult I actually understand their sensibilities and their social and historical contexts.
    But the errors I don't make, in grammar and syntax and (to some elementary degree) style and even in spelling, are errors that were first explained to me in high school. And the briefest glimpses I got from that adult literature of what artful expression was, and how a complex theme could be developed in prose, has stuck with me and given me something to build on as I developed my own tastes in literature.
    There are thousands of right ways to write a sentence, of course. But I'd guess there are tens of thousands of wrong ways, and the kids I teach now have mastered far more of those than I can stand to think about very often. At some point schools seem to have abandoned the bones of English to allow more free expression, and I wonder if the current generation, in returning to the "rules", is using the silly one-size-fits-all rigor that you're talking about here because the teachers and curriculum designers themselves are no longer sure how to write correct and error-free prose in a range of styles. Teenagers' ignorance I can understand, but I've also seen some pretty awful stuff come off those desks at the front of the room...
    So I'm all for that sweet girl finding "her own voice, her own path, her own way", but please God stop forgiving her illiterate and untaught efforts as "acceptable" just because she's "comfortable" with what she's written.

    1. Did we read the same article? I didn't see Peter proposing "forgiving her illiterate and untaught efforts as "acceptable" just because she's "comfortable" with what she's written." Some teachers, and some schools and districts have, IME at the behest of administrators who want to try new Magic Bullets, but my experience with my high-schooler has been nothing BUT drills, except for the stultifying practice of reading a Shakespeare play aloud round-robin-style over the course of a week-plus and dissecting wonderful works of literature until there is nothing left but flayed phrases and lost themes. First it was the 5-sentence paragraph, then the 5-paragraph essay, then we called them BCR's, and now it's vocabulary lists. There may indeed be some freshmen struggling with mechanics, but not the kid who was reading Little House on the Prairie while her Kindergarten classmates were sounding out "A-A-Apple, B-B-Ball" and who had several chapters of a book written out by third grade. She desperately wants to learn the CRAFT of writing, and hasn't had an English teacher even attempt it since 6th grade.

      She's not learning writing; she's learning mechanics. She's not learning to read; she's learning to dissect. She's not learning to understand; she's learning to produce rubric-satisfying sentences and paragraphs and analyses.

      You described how you became a better writer even AFTER high school, and I think it's safe to say that MOST people will become better LOTS of things after high school. But killing our kids' voices early on in favor of mechanics, emphasizing the details in which the Devil resides to the exclusion of their voices, is killing their interest in reading & writing entirely, especially reading & writing anything of substance.

      This isn't English class. Especially for a child who has loved words her entire life, this is hell. :-(

  7. CrunchyMama, good point and thanks for the pushback. I wish I could teach your daughter, and I hope she survives her current hell without losing that love of words and writing.

    1. If Peter permits my parental indulgence, this is a slightly fictionalized account of what my daughter experienced last year in 8th-grade English (it's just ramped up a bit more this year, only *possibly* with slightly less antagonism between students and teacher):

      I think my daughter may be even more cynical this year, if such a thing is possible. :-/

    2. Thanks for sharing what your daughter wrote! I really enjoyed it. It's mind-boggling that she could write so well in eighth grade. She really does have a gift. I always read tons and it did a lot for me in a lot of ways, but I will never be able to write any kind of narrative, let alone the caliber of your daughter's.