Saturday, April 13, 2019

Obstacles To Building Better Writers

Writing well is one of the great uber-skills, a quality that will open an infinite number of doors in a student's life. Unfortunately, we are living through a golden age of bad writing instruction, driven by high stakes testing and shrunken, meager ideas about the very purpose of education.
In 39 years, I had some success in teaching students to be better writers. If you are a teacher intent on building better writers in your classroom, there are several positive steps to take, but we'll get back to those another day. The first step is to avoid several major obstacles that will thwart your progress and send you down paths that do not lead to your desired destination.
There Is Little Useful Research Base To Help You
These days we call for research and evidence to support instructional approaches in the classroom, but there is no meaningful research to speak of when it comes to writing. The available research is based primarily on the one question--does this technique raise test scores. That's generally problematic, but it's particularly problematic because there is no good standardized test of writing, because there is no good simple objective standardized measure of good writing. The closest we come are tests that run writing samples past experienced human readers (not tests that run writing samples past scorers who are briefly trained and given simple instructions to follow), and then we will still deal with some bias.
Look, we know there are no universally agreed-upon objective measures of writing. Pick any writer, no matter how revered and successful, from Shakespeare to Hemmingway, and I will find you experts who can explain why that beloved scribe is really a hack. The canon is full of writers who cannot manage both content and technique. And of course the canon itself is regularly rotated as our ideas about great writing shift and change.
So if someone tells you they have come up with an objective, standardized test that shows how well someone writes, they are full of baloney. And if they say they want to show you some useful research based on the results of that test, they have taken their baloney, ground it up and fried it--but it's still baloney.
There Is Only One Shortcut, And You Won't Feel Good About Using It
Over the years, many teachers have developed their own little shortcuts for dealing with that giant stack of papers. Some are ridiculously reductive, like the content area teachers who scan the essay to find certain key terms. The unfortunate truth is that if you assign 150 essays, you will have to read and respond to 150 essays. There is one corner you can cut. Students get better at writing by repeatedly writing, week after week. Frequent writing is far more effective than assigning one large writing project every nine or twelve weeks. But that creates a mountain of paperwork. The shortcut is for some assignments to only be read without a teacher response on the paper. You won't feel good about it, but the alternative is to imitate a former colleague of mine who used to take a personal day each quarter to sit at home and grade papers for twenty straight hours.
There Is No Substitute For Being A Writer Yourself
Band directors need to play instruments. Coaches need some athletic background. Great teachers of literature have read the works they teach. There may be exceptions, but they are few and far between. If you do not do some sort of writing yourself, your instruction is going to be empty second- and third-hand hints borrowed from other sources. There is no larger roadblock than trying to teach students to write when the last thing you wrote yourself was a college paper 20 years ago. When you stand up in front of your class or make marks on a student paper, you literally do not know what you are talking about.
There Are Traditions That Need To Be Discarded
If you are of a certain age, you were taught that first you must know the parts of speech so that you could build a sentence, and that you must build sentences before you could build a paragraph, and then build paragraphs so that you could build an essay. Today, there are still teaching methods built on the notion that the basic building block of a piece of writing is the sentence.
I disagree. The basic foundation of a piece of writing is not a sentence--it's an idea. Before you can write anything, you have to have an idea to write about. The traditional technical approach is helpful in learning how to write essays strictly for school (and for teachers whose writing instruction is based on this technical approach), but not for real writing for the actual world. The majority of writing problems are not technical problems--they are thinking problems. Should students still learn nouns and verbs and sentences and paragraphs? Absolutely. When there's a knock in the engine and the car won't run right, you need the knowledge to tear it down and fix the issue. But if you have no destination in mind, being able to build a car from scratch can't help you.
Once you get past these obstacles, you are ready to take some positive steps toward building better writers. In other words, once you climb this small mountain, the ascent to the far higher summit can begin

1 comment:

  1. OK Peter. I can do you one better. I had 40 years of teaching high school English, 20 years of remedial summer school and 10 years of Diploma Completion night school. I settled on the general overall strategy of read a lot, write a lot, speak quite a bit, and view a good amount. Then I decided I had to make sure the kids had something to write about, so I made sure that for the most part they would write about what they read or viewed. This could be analysis or reaction writing. The format varied, depending on the ability of the kids.