Write Hard

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?

5 thoughts on “Write Hard

  1. Your point is very well taken. I just became a National Board Certified Teacher, and writing well was the primary means of demonstrating accomplished teaching. The four entries and the six assessment center exercises had to meet the rubric requirements, but I believe that my voice communicated to the people scoring my entries just how much I cared about my students. I did not develop that voice writing 5 paragraph essays. I developed it in 9th grade in Mrs. Feldmiller’s public school writing class. By doing the “Freewriting” technique developed by Peter Elbow, I found my voice. Writing is now one of my favorite methods of developing ideas. I later went on to college and wrote a lot of technical lab reports. Writing is an art and a science. We need to dedicate time K-12th grade and teach students how to grapple with ideas through the writing process.

  2. What will it take to get K-12 teachers to teach writing to young authors as if its more art than science?

    The answer to this is teachers will teach exactly what students need to pass high stakes. When districts and teachers are judged by the number of student who pass these tests, there’s little they can do except teach to the test. I’ve seen many teachers over the years become frustrated by what has happened to education, but it’s hard to change the system. I look for our new Republican governor in Ohio to further degrade public education, (his kids go to Catholic schools), by tying salaries to performance. This doesn’t sound like a bad thing, but it turns teachers into teaching robots.

    Personally, I think high stakes tests are a Republican plot to make their case for privatizing education. I know that makes me sound like a whack nut, but that’s just how I feel.

    • Kelly, A concerted effort has been made to paint American public schools with a broad brush as “failing.” Charter schools are being ushered in as the new solution, when research shows only 1 in 5 charter schools out performs public schools. Charter schools have been repeatedly voted down by citizens of Washington State. However, they have the backing of the Obama administration, the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation and the Dell Foundation. Several months ago, I read in my Yahoo! finance information that after the Nov. 2010 elections education stocks will rise. If you follow the money, you will see that it appears profits can be made by privatizing education. It would be much more simple if only Republicans were endorsing charter schools. However, Democrats for Education Reform (DFER)is also a pro-charter group. According to Diane Ravitch http://www.brookings.edu/articles/2010/1111_superman_ravitch.aspx “The combined clout of these groups, plus the enormous power of the federal government and the uncritical support of the major media, presents a serious challenge to the viability and future of public education.” If you are interested in talking online with people that share your concerns, there are several online advocacy groups, e.g. Teachers Letters To Obama, which is led by NBCT Anthony Cody. Cody’s group contacted Arne Duncan last spring. The text of the conversation is online. Suffice to say that the Department of Education’s response to accomplished teachers well-thought out and clear concerns was patronizing at best.

  3. Suzanne,
    I worked for 2 charters over 8 years, and I also served 8 yr as a school board member for my local district. I was never a big charter school fan, but working for them I found a couple of interesting facts: 1. the teachers I worked with worked as hard, if not harder than those in traditional schools. 2. charters-at least the ones I worked for, had a larger than proportion of Title 1 kids (75% or more), special needs kids (30% or more), and generally served an at-risk population-pregnant teens, teen parents, bullied kids, poor performing home districts. Charter school advocates would say that serving this at-risk population speaks to why their test scores are lower than traditional schools. Where charters miss their mark is that while they are not tied to the same regulations as public schools, owners only take advantage of that when it comes to teacher pay, (traditionally much lower than their counterparts in public schools). Most disturbing though is that good teachers do not make more money than the crappy ones, and yet there is no reason this can’t happen under Ohio Revised Code.

    The last charter I taught for did better on the Ohio State report card meeting 6 indicators), than my local district, which met 0 indicators. Both districts were classified as “Continuous Improvement.” Clearly there is much to do to serve all kids. As long as the parents of charter schools kids think charters offer a better, safer alternative, the momentum of the discussion will not change. Charter school owners have invested HUGE amounts of money on politicians, and PR.

    • Hi Kelly, I appreciate your well-earned perspective on Charters. Your point regarding test scores is well taken. I also work with impoverished students, and know that raising test scores can be challenging with students who live in homes that experience financial hardship. I have never worked in a Charter school. If I were to teach in a Charter, part of me would be excited about new possibilities and a chance to have more say about curriculum, methods, etc. The pay issues you raise are certainly thorny. Thanks again, Suzanne

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