Thursday, May 28, 2015

Writing: Not Unteachable, Often Mistaught

P. L. Thomas just put up a post about the teaching of writing, a subject that is near and dear to my heart, and the post is absolutely spot on (by which I mean I agree with it completely).

Thomas spins a bank shot off one of Vonnegut's writing quotes (short form: "Writing can't be taught") to re-enter that most contentious of English teacher topics-- the Five Paragraph Essay.

Ultimately, the five-paragraph essay allows both teachers and students to avoid the messy and complicated business that is writing—many dozens of choices with purpose and intent.

Yes- exactly.

Many English teachers don't like to teach writing because it is hard. More to the point, it is hard to reduce to simple set of rules and steps and a checklist one can use to grade the finished product. The problem has always been exacerbated by students themselves, many of whom would be most happy if the task of writing could be reduced to a simple set of steps that can be easily followed. "Give me my comfortable hoops," say some of my students, "and I will jump through them happily!"

I am not a five paragraph snob. I have used it my entire career and will continue to do so, primarily because many students come to me as fans of the Uniblob-- a giant mass of verbage and almost-sentences that have fallen out onto the page like toothpaste squeezed out a tube by a spasming fist. If we can get thoughts organized into paragraphs and some sort of simple progression, I absolutely call that a win.

But, as I'm not the first to observe, the FPE can be like training wheels-- useful when you're getting started, but an obstacle once you're really ready to ride.

The FPE ultimately becomes a Fill In The Blank question with five large paragraph-shaped blanks. The FPE encourages students to start by asking the wrong question. They ask "What can I use to fill in each of these blanks" or "What can I write to satisfy the assignment." These questions are most likely to produce inauthentic, lifeless, pointless pieces of writing-- but inauthentic, lifeless, pointless writing that meets the requirements of the teacher's (or standardized test scorer's) checklist.

The correct question to start with is, "What do I think about this?" A good follow-up question is "What's the best way for me to say it?"

The answers to those questions are absolutely personal. In his piece, Thomas compares himself to a colleague-- one puts words down as a first step, and one as a final step. That broad variety is, of course, normal. Some writers must be still to think, and some must be active. Some must be silent and some must be vocal.

There is no One Right Way to write. This is maddening for some teachers and some students. Where the hell is our list of rules? Unfortunately, the real list is short and only sort of helpful:

1) Figure out what you want to say.
2) Figure out a good way to say it.
3) Say it.

Most writing problems are really thinking problems, and the traditional way to solve them is to take thinking out of the equation. This is solving the problem by substituting a different problem. This is having trouble deciding what to order in a restaurant, so you go watch a movie about food instead. Templates and FPE are just a way to say, "Never mind thinking. Just fill in the blanks with what you believe the authorities will find acceptable."

There is nothing less open to standardization than writing, and yet for generations, long before the advent of Truly Terrible Tests, teachers and textbook publishers have tried to make it so. But you cannot standardize, templatize, or rulify writing without turning it into something else entirely.

I kiss my wife because I have a particular feeling, and I follow the impulse born of that feeling at that time. If I kiss my wife because I am concerned about satisfying some Higher Authority's Rules about how I should behave toward my wife, the action I take may bear a superficial resemblance to a kiss, but as I stand there carefully arranging my lips and checking for the approved level of moisture, angle of approach, degree of impact pressure, duration of contact, and any other rules I've been told I must follow for such interactions, the resulting action is something else entirely.

So, can writing be taught at all?

God, I hope so, or I don't know what the hell I've been doing for the past thirty-some years.

Here are some things that I believe work.

Tools. We teach students a variety of tools and techniques. This includes technical tricks like Ways To Make Transitions Happen and analytical tricks like Count All the Forms of Be in Your Paper and See If You Can Make Some Go Away. This also includes sharing and discussing process, so that students can learn a variety of ways that they could, for example, pre-write.

Permission. Particularly if they have wandered down the path of One True Way. I cannot even begin to guess how many students I have dealt with who insist on using approaches to writing that do not work for them at all, simply because they are convinced that's what they are Supposed To Do. Give students permission and encouragement to experiment and wander and try other things.

Write. Write write write write WRITE write write. I am pretty sure that if I simply had students write all the time and I never gave them a lick of feedback, but just kept them writing, they would get better. Feedback, reflection, discussion, sharing and assessment all speed up the process, but the activity central to improving writing is to write. Frequently, regularly, in a variety of modes and purposes, but write.

Individualization. I start with the premise that there are no child prodigy writers, which has to mean that everybody starts in the same place-- Downtown Suckville. Every writer is on a journey from Suckville to Awesome Town, but there is no bus or train that runs there, so every writer has to make the journey in her own way at her own speed. In fact, the trip metaphor only works if we allow for black holes and secret tunnels, because travelers don't even hit checkpoints in the same order. This week Chris may be ready to figure out conclusions but Pat is still wrestling with using less passive voice. Alphonse may be trying to work out writing tools that Fiona doesn't even care about. Every teacher of writing must make her own compromises, because you won't have time to handle the individual nature of learning instruction perfectly. Only you can figure out how you'll deal with that. But there is no tool more important to a writer than individual voice and that is, of course, individual.

So I believe that writing can be taught and fostered and mentored. The tricky part is that there are sooooooo many ways that a teacher can mess things up and get in the way. Templates and the FPE are prime examples of how that can go wrong. Thomas is right; Vonnegut is wrong. Writing is often mistaught, but it is not unteachable.


  1. "Teaching is often mistaught, but it is not unteachable."

    Interesting Freudian slip? I think you mean *writing*?

  2. I think reading is also really important in learning to write. I like Thomas' idea of genre awareness. But Thomas seems to think that people who write by vocation use a different process than those who write occasionally or by compulsion, and I don't think so. From what I've read, professional writers each have their own way of going about it.

    I hate to write. I never had a diary like a lot of girls I knew, probably because I was too private a person and too sensitive to criticism and never wanted to commit to writing what I thought or felt in case somehow someone else saw it. Whereas some people write poetry from a very young age. Whether it's good poetry or not by any standard doesn't matter because it feels like poetry to them, they enjoy doing it, sometimes even feel compelled to do it.

    It's true that everybody's writing process is different. The only way I could write, when I had to, was to write down everything I thought about the topic (which sounds like the way Thomas, as a writer by vocation, does it), and then organize it afterward. My son is the opposite. For all his college writing, he would completely organize it first in his head, and well - while he was playing videogames.

    Another question is student motivation. It's almost impossible for me to write about anything I don't care about. Writing from stupid prompts about a stupid topic they don't care about is hard for most people.

    I always think the most important thing high school students can learn, regardless of genre, is to be clear so that a reader can really understand what they want to say. But anybody who plans on going to college needs to take a class specifically for that kind of writing. Writing five paragraphs isn't too helpful when you're expected to write 5-15 pages for each paper in freshman comp. And then do research papers using mla or whatever. And follow the format (also artificial, I would argue, and we didn't have to do this when I was in college) of thesis, antithesis, blah blah blah. And you can't teach a course like that well with 30 students per class.

  3. Oh, this speaks to my condition. We are required to induce our students to write every month in a paragraph format taught to us as AXES: Assertion, Example with citation of a text, eXplanation and Synthesis, which is the part where kids are supposed to explain why it is important to Joe Schmoe reader. That is particularly difficult to do with novices in a field with difficult concepts wrapped in technical vocabulary.

    I am pretty clever and creative, but I am not clever enough to consistently pretzel important physics concepts into this format. It is telling that in a PD meeting showing us the power of this format for every discipline, the Hero Math Teacher of Escalante Proportions was unable to complete the presentation. Her example did not follow the format. I found that convincing, just not in the way admin intended. Yay for AXES.

  4. I love writing. It's my life. But I hate teaching writing because I disagree with "people in charge" about how writing should be taught.

    When I teach writing, I approach it in a way that I think is effective. That means, I need to keep my head down and not draw attention to myself so I don't get in trouble for not teaching "the program." Like you, I think writing A LOT is a very good thing. Like you, I think that most writing problems are thinking problems. I mark up papers a lot. I conference with students a lot. I think portfolios with checklists are useless. I think drafting is great, but only if students buy-in to the idea that the first draft is not the final draft. That's a hard sell in a general education classroom.

    Our school is currently revising our general education program, and there is going to be a writing across the curriculum component. I think this is going to be a miserable failure because people who are not writing instructors are going to have a very hard time teaching writing in their disciplines. But I hope I'm wrong.

  5. Heh. Take a look at the R.A.P.S. model that is circulating like wildfire at the moment. It's geared toward answering test questions that require a written response.

  6. Thanks for the article. As a writer, and now, for the last couple of years, a teacher of writing to 3rd and 4th graders, I find that administrators are notoriously bad writers. I tell my students that questions are the engine of writing, their questions. I am often at odds with admin because my students write about what interests them. I remind admin that my task is to help them become writers and effectively communicate their thoughts in their own way. I refuse to try and teach them what to think and make them zombie students with a writing formula. The kids come to my room and enjoy writing, they work together to proofread and edit for each other, and (of course not all the chat is on topic, but they are kids and need to socialize a bit), The Five Paragraph Essay is used on occasion by me, but at this age the key for my kids is to communicate with others. I can't tell a kid how they should write, I can only help them say what they want to say so others get their message. Thanks for this post Peter.