Reflecting on 35 Years of Teaching Writing

Teaching and using writing to explore, to expand, and to explain is what we do; how to use writing is what we teach. With this in mind, “writing is best understood as a complex intellectual activity that requires students to stretch their minds, sharpen their analytical capabilities, and make valid and accurate distinctions” (National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges, 2003, p.13). Thus, I teach with writing.

As both a student and a teacher, I have lived through numerous trends and theories of writing instruction. As a high school student in the early seventies, I methodically wrote the assigned five-paragraph essays about literature; then in college, used the same basic format to approach the longer papers assigned. When I entered the credential program at UCSB in the early eighties, I entered the world of Peter Elbow as I participated in Sheridan Blau’s South Coast Writing Project. Suddenly, writing shifted from form to freedom. Commenting on that time period’s emphasis on social values of individualism, personal expression, equality, and freedom, D. Bowden observes that “outlets for self-expression in writing were suddenly highly valued” and “that both the process movement (which paid attention to how writing was produced) and voice (which privileged the expression of emotions, passions, ideals, and a writer’s inner character) not only took hold but also became quickly entrenched (Clark et al., 2003, p. 287). When I began teaching, I faced a tug-of-war between teaching the form by which I had learned to write for school and avoiding what Macrorie termed Engfish, “standard academic writing in which students attempt to replicate the style and form of their professors” (Clark et al., 2003, p. 289). My early years as a teacher produced many standard English, five-paragraph essays because frankly, I could more objectively explain grades to students, parents, and colleagues. In the early nineties, I met Rae Jean Williams who invited me to work with the UCLA Writing Project. Through that involvement with colleagues, sharing experiences and theories, I discovered freedom in using writing to teach, as opposed to trying to teach writing.

One of the most important lessons I learned from Rae Jean is that students need a reason for writing, that writing is a response to some stimulus, a means to an end rather than the end. Some may disagree, and in fact, in my early years of implementing writing workshop in my classroom, I believed that the objective was simply to get kids writing. My writing workshop followed the usual protocol of encouraging students to write frequently and allowing for students to work on several pieces at a time, keeping every piece of writing, from notes to outlines to rough drafts to final copies, in their English folders. As students completed rough drafts, they spent time with me during a conference session discussing possible revisions. These rough drafts were not graded, in order to motivate revision, rather than create frustration. Students were required to submit revised pieces as part of their final exam grade — these pieces were graded on revision work shown. Two days a week in class were Writing Workshop days during which students worked on their own writing, shared writing with peer groups, and individually conferred with me about writing problems. I encouraged individuals to write about topics that interested them personally; I rarely assigned one topic to all students. I challenged students to experiment with various modes of writing such as autobiographical, poetry, journaling, short story, persuasive, and observational. The basic workshop approach provided a safe environment for writing, which does motivate as “they had ownership over the learning activities,” but did not provide a reason to write (Shellard & Protheroe, 2004, p. 13).

A better use of writing workshop provides a safe environment to approach the writing tasks presented in students’ core classes. Research indicates that one of the problems with the romantic rhetoric approach of my initial workshop is that it was “based on the idea that writing has only one purpose, self-exploration. However, in reality, it has multiple purposes” (Williams, 2003, p. 66). Because reading and writing are so integrated, students need to understand the use of specific genres of writing for specific purposes, not only as readers of text but as responders to text. When teaching the use of writing, teachers need to understand that “writers and readers use similar kinds of knowledge…in the act of making their meanings: knowledge about language, knowledge about content, knowledge about genre conventions” and help students make those connections (Langer & Flihan, 2000). Correct grammar can signal skillful writing – correct structure does indicate a sense of organization and coherence. “Correct” writing, however, is often boring and according to a recent study:

Teaching students the grammar raises tacit knowledge to a conscious level in ways that interfere with the efficient language processing necessary in writing. In other words, students…probably were thinking more about the grammar rules than they were about writing, with deleterious effects. (Williams, 2003, p. 50)

Here, once again, is the tug-of-war between personal and academic discourses. However, when I ask students about audience, purpose, and the key question of “so what?” I help students learn how to use those formal elements of style to elicit the answer they desire.

In the workshop setting, students can look at form and structure of an essay, for instance, as the “basic outfit” that needs personal identity. In groups, or individually, students can consider how the writing can be improved by adding elements of style specific to their purpose, personal choices made by each writer including the choice of genre that best addresses their needs. Depending on students’ background knowledge, students can be asked to add their own style by adding rhetorical devices, varying sentence structure, changing passive voice to active; this is best achieved by break ing this into steps and modeling, rather than direct instruction/drill of grammar. We may discuss, for instance, rhetorical devices and then students add one device to a piece of writing on which they are currently working. When we look at sentence types, I can then lead students to adding a periodic or cumulative sentence, for example. In this way, students develop understanding of grammar and rhetorical structure in the same way they look at what their favorite performers are wearing, choosing to add the elements they like best to their own personal wardrobe. Referring back to where I began, with writing, I teach students to use writing to achieve their purposes, to generate the answers they desire to the questions they and/or their teachers ask, to write meaningfully.

Teaching with writing applies to all content areas because it is teaching students how to use writing as “Powerful discourse…discourse that makes a difference; has a rhetorical purpose; and informs, persuades, or moves an audience from their present state of mind to a new one” (Clark et al., 2003, p. 296).

References:

Clark, I., Bamberg, B,, Bowden, D,, Edlund, J., Gerrard, L., Klein, S., Lippman, J., & Williams, J. (2003). Concepts in composition: Theory and practice in the teaching of writing. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Langer, J., & Flihan, S. (2000). Writing and reading relationships: Constructive tasks. Retrieved April 28, 2008, from http://cela.albany.edu/publication/article/writeread.htm

National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges. (2003). The neglected R: The need for a writing revolution. Retrieved April 28, 2008, from http://www.writingcommission.org/prod_downloads/writingcom/neglectedr.pdf

Shellard, E., & Protheroe, N. (2004). Writing across the curriculum to increase student learning in middle and high school. Arlington, VA: Educational Research Service.

Williams, J., (2003). Preparing to teach writing: Research, theory, and practice. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

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