Sunday, September 1, 2013

Writing Instruction (and Destruction)

Writing is a multi-step process.

I don't think that first sentence was very controversial. In fact, I don't think it's controversial at all. You'd be hard pressed to find a writer who claims that writing doesn't involve any sort of planning, or drafting, or revision. You'd be harder pressed to find a less divisive opener. I'm really patting myself on the back here.

Likewise, learning to write is a multi-step process.

Now at this point, I must be pulling your leg. I've made two relatively universal, outright boring, non-controversial claims-- and not only that, but I've given them their own paragraph. Why? Well, listen:

Those concepts are relatively simple sounding. I think most people would agree wholeheartedly. When Jesus commanded humanity to love thy neighbors and enemies alike, I'm sure his followers were all for it. But then they got back to their homes and saw that insolent enemy neighbor not taking care of his weeds again, ensuring that the remainder of the day would have to be spent guarding my prize-winning lawn from the infestation next door. Thanks, Dave. Life is always more complicated than it seems.

And so, my point: if we all agree that learning to write is a multi-step process, why do we go about teaching it as if it isn't? Writing in many schools is a barrage of five-paragraph instruction and regurgitation, utilizing a form that, while effective, has been beaten to death and drained of its creativity. The writing these students produce is standardized because the instruction is standardized because the tests are standardized. What we demand from them is not a love of writing. It is the ability to be clear. Is that important? Absolutely. But unfortunately, clarity is only one step of the ladder.

The readings this week illustrate the same inherent frustration of many who realize that this system cannot and should not last. We expect our students to learn to write like this, never fully realizing the potential connection between writing in the English classroom and personal writing, only for them to throw it out when they reach college. Professors don't want to read that kind of writing. Nobody does. Most importantly, the students don't want to, either. This is why the inquiry based writing instruction is, albeit imperfect, a breath of fresh air to writing instruction. It emphasizes student involvement, de-emphasizes stringent rules, and fosters avid writers. In our reading, it is written: "students will be prepared to meet the demands of writing in a world with constantly evolving conventions and expectations, because what they know about writing is not static; they've learned how to learn about writing" (Ray, 247).

I particularly like the relationship between this and the integration of digital literacy, which is finally being recognized in classrooms all over the country. Our readings acknowledged that “creating a web-based text is very similar to creating a print-based text” (Hicks, 36). With an emphasis on drafting, planning, and revising--along with an increased consciousness of audience and purpose--digital writing (such as blog posts like this) can definitely be incorporated in the classroom to reinforce the idea that writing for class and writing for fun can and should overlap.

"No man but a blockhead ever wrote,
except for money." - Samuel Johnson
It is with this in mind that the mini-lesson becomes so crucial to the writing workshop. This form of instruction is quick, and, if done well, can grab and retain the students attention. In the long run, teaching students how to write through explicit instruction is definitely not as effective as allowing students to explore other works and model and adapt techniques through interesting and engaging reading. It is through a systematic adoption of inquiry based instruction and attention-grabbing lessons that our students can learn now only how to write, but why. It can help them understand that writing isn't just a grade-- it is a way to explore & discover, to convey, and to conquer.


  1. Eric,
    Yet again, another well crafted piece of genius my friend. I do feel like some teachers are stubborn mules and expect that their students should conform to their will like hot metal to a mallet. Do they even see the kids? Students are living and breathing, heart and soul, flesh and blood human beings. They have an unlimited creativity that needs to be tapped. However, a teacher simply placing a piece of paper or a computer screen in front of them and bellowing "Write! Write the way I taught you to! Bwahaha!" (cue lightning and thunder) does not work. Students often find themselves, as Stephanie put it, staring at the blank page or the blinking cursor and think to themselves, "Now what?" We then become their guides placing tiny suggestions in front of them and setting them loose. They need a starting point, but if we don't already know the course, we aren't going to be much help. We must learn about the new literacies out there so that we can better equip our students to express their uniqueness in many different mediums. Options equal choices or crucial decisions that will shape who our students become later in life. The world is waiting for their stories to be written...let's help them write.

  2. I love and also agree with your idea that writing instructions should place more emphasis on drafting, planning, and revising along with an increased consciousness of audience and purpose, and it seems doable/ incorportable in our classrooms. And, I think it's really brilliant to utilize the mini lesson sessions to grab students' attention for what other writing styles/types/options that they really have and teach them those. But, I wonder how much teachers can delve into those kinds of writing instructions in reality because, like you mentioned the standardized writing that students produce stem from the standardized tests that the students are required to take and teachers are required to help them pass. It's really a continuing dilemma for teachers, I think. I, myself, don't know what I could/will be doing with my future-classes. But anyway, I like the inspiring passion both you and Allyson have for teaching students how to write and why they write!