Friday, March 2, 2012

The Prepared Experience and Teaching Writing

Repetition (M.A. Reilly, 2010)

I've been thinking about composition and how it is often taught/assigned at school as a task to be mastered. Learning to write is reduced to a sharp alignment between what is being tested and the form to be taught.  In such instances, we mistake learning to write with being assigned a passing score on a state-issued rubric. This is a costly error.  At schools, I often hear teachers say and administrators insist that a test genre unit be included--as if the writing generated for high stakes test was an art in itself.  I mean how many people do you know who want to read the compositions generated in response to test prompts? More recently, I am seeing complicated conversations that some may know as curriculum be muted and instead, test prepping units of study, affectionately retitled as genre studies, be mandated.

Let me say that I come to the topic of composition and schooling with two significant biases.
  1. The national high stakes testing culture and the equally local school-based grading mania, as well as teacher evaluation systems that are being made public, each work to undermine student writing as they undermine the necessity of taking risks which is a requisite to deep thinking.  The more attention we place on high stakes single measures or the assignment given in order to generate a grade for use on a report card, the more we will see learners being forced to practice a particular form and/or assignment repeatedly in lieu of more expansive and nomadic writing opportunities.  The emphasis on mastering a single type of written expression, and oddly one I have not found to exist outside of high stakes tests, is myopic and dangerous.  Learners leave school not as accomplished thinkers who use written language as a means to express thought, but rather as compliant recipe followers. 
  2. If an educator isn't an active and reflective composer,  she or he cannot teach writing well or create the necessary classroom and school environments in which one might want to risk writing.  Without inside knowledge about reading and writing, it is too easy to succumb to or mandate recipe teaching methods of writing, as well as to make learners do things that many writers simply wouldn't do.  For example, I recently heard a administrator tell the teachers at the school that they must ensure that their students wrote 'the' topic sentence at the top of their composition page first before writing anything else and that they were not allowed to change this sentence. "Tell them to make it count," he told the staff. "They're stuck with it."  Meaning emerges as I write and as such, I am often resituating myself inside the work. I rarely know what I am going to be writing when I begin. Nor does what I start with remain.  Often I delete the opening and closing to a work.  In another school, I heard a teacher respond to a student who interestingly enough asked if he could 'talk his essay out' first into his phone and the teacher told him: "No. No one writes that way and anyway you know you can't use your phone in class." As for authors dictating their work orally, one only has to think of Richard Powers to realize the folly of the teacher's words. In a Sunday Book Review, Powers writes: "Except for brief moments of duress, I haven’t touched a keyboard for years. No fingers were tortured in producing these words — or the last half a million words of my published fiction. By rough count, I’ve sent 10,000 e-mail messages without typing. My primary digital prosthetic doesn’t even have keys. I write these words from bed, under the covers with my knees up, my head propped and my three-pound tablet PC — just a shade heavier than a hardcover — resting in my lap, almost forgettable. I speak untethered, without a headset, into the slate’s microphone array. The words appear as fast as I can speak, or they wait out my long pauses. I touch them up with a stylus, scribbling or re-speaking as needed. Whole phrases die and revive, as quickly as I could have hit the backspace. I hear every sentence as it’s made, testing what it will sound like, inside the mind’s ear."   As for cell phones being allowed at school, I am certain that in the not so distant future others will look back at this time and classify our reluctance to allow usable technology in places of learning as counterproductive.

Writing is less about mastering a form and more about the evolution of thought. In many schools though, teaching the form has been privileged as a means to control the complexity of writing. Instead of thinking, a recipe to follow is offered, one I am learning that occasionally even takes its name from food, such as the hamburger method for essay writing.  Even in the workshop model classrooms, I have seen an increasing emphasis on form and far less emphasis on the messiness and unpredictability of thought.
A few nights ago I was asking my son about what homework he had and he said with great nonchalance, " I have to write a short story." 
As it was already after 7 p.m., I asked with a bit of alarm, "You have to do what?"
He looked up from his computer where he was playing an on-line game and said, "It's just a short story. It should take me less than an hour."
"How's that possible?"
"I already listed it."
"What does that mean?"
"I wrote down the setting, the characters, and the plot in school.  Now I just have to put it together. No big deal. It'll be quick."

And sadly it was.
Understanding writing as an evolution of thought requires that learners engage with texts (read, view, listen, speak, write, draw) often and freely and have meaningful and timely response to these efforts.  It asks that learners observe and experiment, make note of the world about them and the worlds within them.  It asks learners to generate and abandon, to set aside and to look again at forgotten or abandoned work.  It often requires them to revise and edit ideas, as well as written/spoken texts.  Composing may be an individual matter and it may be collaborative.  It may be done on and off screen. Writing as thought is very different than writing as compliance.

When students are caught in a cycle of test prepping and test taking, I wonder if there are enough occasions for them to make the critical errors needed in order to experiment, try on new ways of expressing, and to learn how to think expansively and critically through written text.  In a test readiness environment, when do learners experience risk-free error making? When do errors not 'count' on some sort of practice assessment or for grades that get computed and represented on report cards? 

Essay is not a Hamburger: Thinking about Form

I love to read essays.  One might say I am a bit addicted to the well-written essay. I just finished rereading Walker Percy's "The Loss of the Creature." It's a complicated work in which Percy discusses the differences between having a sovereign experience and having an experience that has been mediated by another.  Percy writes: "A student who has the desire to get at a dogfish or a Shakespeare sonnet may have the greatest difficulty in salvaging the creature itself from the educational package in which it is presented." I think Percy's insight is important here.  It makes me wonder about the agency  learners need in order to claim the necessary time, opportunity, resources, and expectation to write actual essays, not five paragraph pseudo-letters.  For example, I recently was reading several student compositions.  Along with the student work I also had the corresponding rubric and the assignment.  The assignment specified the task students would be responding to which mimicked a high stakes state assessment.  The assignment also specified what students should include in each of the five paragraphs and how many sentences each paragraph should be. The rubric outlined how the product the student made would be graded as the rubric had a score point value attached to its descriptors.  Where is the freedom to experiment?  Where is the struggle to compose something you want to say?  Where is the space necessary to think?  Where is the time to abandon and (re)find a work? Why must an attempt be graded?  Now imagine that this scene is repeated across six years from third through eighth grade and comprises what it means to write.  The child in production of these recipe-based essays comes to mistake the products s/he produces with that of an essay. 

Percy writes about the need to exercise one's sovereign rights. He says that there are two traits that are present in exercising such rights:  

"( I) an openness of the thing before one instead of being an exercise to be learned according to an approved mode...; (2) a sovereignty of the knower-instead of being a consumer of a prepared experience, I am a sovereign wayfarer, a wanderer..." *

Learning requires both the openness of the thing and the sovereignty of being the knower.  This is the center of fine learning and conditions for writing.  The absence of such agency leads to mimicry, at best. Instead of the elegant essay, we get the tired five paragraph text in which every child tries to convince his/her teacher (really there is no other audience) why cell phones should or should not be allowed at school...or why school dances should or should not be allowed and so on.

*If ever I was looking for a philosophical basis upon which to compose a school, Percy's statement would be an excellent start.


  1. Okay, you've got me thinking about how I teach writing. I know a lot of the things I do are wrong, but I also don't know how to un-teach all the years of "how many sentences does it have to be" that they get in the grades below mine.

    While your essay is inspiring, is there a longer piece somewhere that you could recommend that could help guide me down the right path? A book or a particular blog that could help my colleagues and I go the right direction?

    1. Hi Mike, Thanks for your response. Yes, there are several works I can recommend. In Deepening Literacy Learning, chapters 4, 7, 8, and 9 all address writing.

      On my page of published writing is an article w/ link to Teacher as Bricoleur.

      Also this post:

      Finally I would recommend you take a look at the National Writing Project:

    2. Thank you. I'm always looking to improve. Sometimes it's not an easy road to navigate, but when someone smart give you a sense of direction it's huge.

    3. Mike I agree. It is far easier to write a post about teaching writing than to actually do it. The commitment alone is significant. It worries me the time table that has been set up in the new manufactured writing workshop classroom where every few weeks it's time to learn a new genre. This seems so counterproductive from the point of view of the child learning to speak with words, images, gestures, sound, and mulitmodal representations. Best of luck as you rethink your teaching. Let me know how it goes. We are all in this struggle and a very good one it is.

    4. i think a good article on how to teach writing is peter elbow's "closing my eyes as i speak" . . . or his book: Writing With Power.

      but wow, this was such a great post. THANK YOU. THANK YOU. btw, as a writing teacher myself, the one thing i try and do (and don't see enough in any "how to" book) is help them learn the value of observation. which is different than description, though i'm not sure why.

  2. Eloquently stated. I did my time in the public system teaching writing for over a decade. The onslaught of creativity began in 1996 with the introduction of you well know and discuss in your piece. I actually failed the first writing exam for my English Teacher License because I did not follow code with the five paragraph formula. I did not allow my experiences to squash my enthusiasm to write, instead I used it to fuel my innate desire and curiosity to be creative. Although I have left the system, I think often of the many young minds being forced to formulate homogenous thought patterns for the sake of federal dollars and unbeknownst to the learner. I appreciate and share your perspective.
    Sabrina Albrecht
    Mom, Educator at Home

  3. Wow! What a fine post, Mary Ann. I think you are spot on in your analysis of the sad state of writing instruction, and if I understand you correctly, you have placed the problem squarely in our systemic reliance on the right answer. As you know, nothing closes discussion quicker than the right answer; unfortunately, nothing is easier to grade or assess than the right answer. Few things convince law makers more than the right answer. It makes all the difference in education whether you start with the right answer or the right question. Good writing, as far as I can tell, always starts with good questions, but questions are so messy, and standardized tests and curricula do not cope with questions very well.

    But keep in mind that changing writing instruction has serious organizational implications. I can grade a 500-word essay in under 5 minutes, but engaging an essay that well may be going someplace I don't know about can take much longer. Schools, K-16, really aren't set up for that.

    That's the organizational side of this issue. The personal side—not completely isolated from the organizational—is the number of writing teachers who do not write. This is like hiring music teachers who do not play music. These are tough issues, and I wish I had some right answers for them.

  4. This post so resonates with me! I tweeted a while back saying that real writers don't write "hamburger" paragraphs and the world literature would be literally inexistent had writers kept following scholastic advice. Imagine "Mrs. Dalloway", or "Ulysses" being written that way...

    This process of "schoolifying" disciplines exterminates any wish for students to experience "real" writing, real science, real art. The very attempt to approach disciplines through such a narrow pedagogical view extinguishes authenticity and creativity.

    If with very young learners some guidance is needed at first (I teach elementary school students who happen to be second-language learners, too), this should be slowly removed in time so they can experiment, play, and (re)find as you say.


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