In high school one of my best friends on the golf team nicknamed me “Birdie”. Despite that moniker, Mike Miles, another teammate, always kicked my ass. That was okay though because he starred in college, turned pro, and played a few years on Tour before settling into a head pro job at a swanky country club. Over the last few years he’s qualified for and played in a few majors.
I remember Mike telling me how he got started. His dad and then first instructor told him to swing hard. That was it. For a long time. Before turning technical, they allowed him to develop a natural swing and feel for the game.
Contrast that with Alberto Salazar, the great American marathoner from the 70’s and 80’s who is coaching one of America’s most promising marathoners. As detailed here, Salazar is completely breaking down and rebuilding his pupil’s stride.
Honing a golf swing, learning to run long distances as fast as anyone in the world, learning to write well. Art and feel versus science and technique.
Public school teachers in Western Washington, and I suspect across the entire fruited plain, are taking Salazar-like scientific approaches to teaching writing. They seemingly worship at the altar of the five paragraph essay. Thesis, three supporting ideas, three supporting details per idea, restating of thesis.
Wake me when you’re done.
Recently, Fifteen finally asked me for some feedback on an essay. In our back and forths, she sometimes said, “But I can’t do that there because I have to state my second supporting idea.” In other words Dad, there’s a template, lines I have to color within. Write by number.
Fifteen goes to an excellent public school and has a well respected honors English teacher. Why does someone with so much literary smarts and sophistication teach writing so mechanically? Why doesn’t she go Mike Miles on her students and say in essence “write hard”. Put differently, let’s not worry about literary devices and discrete techniques until you develop an affinity for the process and a feel for the language.
Three possibilities: 1) Large numbers of essays have to be graded, the five paragraph essay outline expedites that. 2) She’s simply going along to get along by teaching to the test. Standardized exam-based writing samples are expected to be hyper-organized more than they are idiosyncratic, interesting, or insightful. And 3) She’s too busy to step back and truly reflect on alternative approaches. She’s a victim of English/Language Arts groupthink.
Here are the questions I ask my students to continually kick around throughout my semester-long writing seminar:
• Have I been sufficiently introspective? Do I have interesting ideas to communicate in the first place (meaning original ones)? [overarching aim: developing your voice as a person/writer]
• Do I provide sufficient details to clearly illustrate or explain my ideas (versus writing in vague generalities)?
• Do I organize my ideas within distinct paragraphs, limiting each paragraph to one main idea?
• Do I logically piece my paragraphs together so that the sum is greater than the parts (is there a logical order to the paragraphs and do I incorporate transitional sentences and phrases)?
• Do I communicate my ideas as succinctly as possible by continually working to eliminate unnecessary words, sentences, and paragraphs?
• Do I draw my readers in with an enticing title and engaging opening paragraph?
• Do mechanical errors distract my readers to the point that they have to read my work a few times to fully grasp it?
I’m afraid K-12 English/Language Arts teachers are wining the battle of teaching students to replicate the five paragraph outline in their essays, but are losing the war of teaching them to be analytical and thoughtful enough to communicate interesting ideas in engaging ways.
In their short essays, secondary students routinely pass a “hyper-organized point of diminishing returns”. They have a thesis, three supporting points, three details for each supporting point, and a conclusion, but fail to draw their readers in, fail to communicate anything very insightful, and worst of all, come to see writing as a teacher and test company pleasing game.
What will it take to get K-12 teachers to teach writing to young authors as if its more art than science?