Sunday, November 20, 2011

Fake Writing

This week Jay Matthews of the Washington Post drew attention to the problem of teaching writing in our public schools.

It's awful.  That's the consensus.

His argument was sparked by a commentary earlier in the week by Paula Stacy in Education Week where she bemoans the lifeless writing products which pass for good thinking when students arrive in colleges and universities.

She's right, you know.  In the main, writing instruction, when it is addressed at all, is horrible.

If you ever had to evaluate a raft of these so-called papers, you too would bemoan the state of writing in the United States.  The papers are wooden, lifeless, replete with errors, and simplistic in their thinking.

In short, they follow the process steps outlined in various formulas (like the dreaded five-paragraph essay).  Teaching formulaic writing is similar to teaching dance by pasting the silhouette of footprints on a dance floor and asking the dancer to follow the prescribed steps in some semblance of a rhythm.

And we all know what that looks like: rhythmically-challenged white guy trying to boogie.

Having read my fair share of five-paragraph essays, it's clear an instructor barely has to read in order to make an assessment since the path the student is taking is telegraphed in the thesis statement.  No surprises.  No turns of thought.  Just scan down the page and see if paragraph one matches their first point, with some evidence; paragraph two should follow suit, and so forth, until arriving at a conclusion that restates the thesis (again, dear idiot reader, in case the point isn't clear yet through mindless repetition).

Poor Montaigne.  How he must roll over in his grave.  His "essai"--meaning attempt at understanding, often without a neat conclusion, sometimes even with more questions than answers--has come to this: all problems solved in three easy steps.

Writing has long been a neglected art in all of formal education.  Why?  There are a number of reasons, but first and foremost is the lack of attention and time spent understanding the craft of writing or using writing the way it is intended--as a tool for further learning.

The inattention to writing has been perpetuated for generations.

Poor writing instructors teach the next generation what they were taught and those hapless students grow up to teach the next class and so forth.  And now districts can buy all the easy answers in a box, hand them out to teachers, ask them to spend an hour or two on writing twice a semester and feel smug in having resolved the writing problem.  (Starting to see the danger in the "three solutions to every problem" thinking we've structured for ourselves?)

Teachers, like most of the adult population, are insecure in their own writing (having either hated it, been chastised for poor spelling, commas, what have you, or convinced that writers spring fully formed from the mind of Zeus and cannot be shaped by instruction.)

There is one group that has championed good instruction in writing for more than 30 years: The National Writing Project. This, one of the true academic communities in existence today--modeling learning through inquiry even beyond the level of most academic communities in our universities--brings teachers together to share best practice in both teaching and using writing.

In its often-heralded capstone professional learning program -- the Intensive Summer Institute-- the National Writing Project insists that teachers write, for themselves but also for their students.  When the teachers return to their schools after the institute, they are often the oddball down the hall who is doing something weird with their kids--and getting results.

Teacher Consultants trained through the Writing Project write with and in front of their students modeling the messy, recursive process of composing a thought into the clearest expression possible.  From invention to publishable quality piece, writing project teachers show their students where an idea comes from, how it is developed, how an audience shapes a message, how writing helps clarify thinking, and that anyone can be a writer--one who makes meaning from experience.  Most TCs look for real-world writing opportunities for students, journal regularly, give students latitude in choosing topics, and infuse writing into every subject area.

The problem with writing in our schools is that it is treated as a separate discipline, when it should be a part of every subject.  The irony in today's current instruction is that we assume that a child can sit down and produce a piece of writing that reflects their thinking without having been provided ample opportunity to first think independently.

Writing should inform every subject with students writing to themselves first. Even a kindergartner can ask "What do I already know about the changing seasons?"  Students can collect their own data: What did I see on the way to school today that helps me understand how the earth rotates around the sun?  What questions do I have about how the world works?  What are my strengths?  How do I know when I'm competent?  What have I done that I am proud of?  How did I do that?

These are real questions of inquiry that students can wrestle with in their own language and are a necessary step in learning any subject. Writing is a separate form of thinking wherein the writer comes to know his or her own mind.  It is a necessary step in understanding and retaining experience.  It is a record of where the mind has been.  Oddly, after composing a true inquiry, the writer, rather than the reader, is the one who knows the subject best.

And, when used in this context, writing ISN'T about correctness.  It is about thinking.

Our kids write poorly because they are asked to write what they do not know.  And adults who have survived this method of formulaic composition do the same--and then act accordingly--finding repetitive, simplistic answers to weighty and complex problems.  We cannot afford to perpetuate three-answer-group-think in a world with increasingly complex, global problems.

By the way--The National Writing Project-- probably the most under leveraged tool for improving instruction in our nation's school, repeatedly held up as the gold standard for professional development, and among the cheapest (the budget for the entire nation was only 22 million) was cut from the Department of Education budget last year.

Oh, well.  That leaves 22 million more for multiple-choice testing.

At least those tests give you four choices instead of three.


  1. Great post. I agree that writing seems to be the forgotten topic in a lot of classrooms and schools. The push in ELA always seems to be reading (important as it is) and writing is like some offshoot of reading response.
    The National Writing Project certainly helped me with how I teach writing to my sixth graders.

  2. Thanks Kevin. Writing shouldn't be part of the curriculum. It should be the curriculum. How do you know what you know until you see what you've said?

  3. Great post, Mary! The NVWP was THE best thing I've done -- for my students and for myself. What an incredible experience! I had this amazing teacher, too.... ;)

  4. As a teacher at a "Title One" school, I have been unable to attend any writing workshops. Federal "Title One" funds (for schools with high poverty levels) are only available for reading or math professional development. It doesn't matter that good writing instruction goes hand in hand with good reading instruction. Thanks for the great post.

  5. Chelle, you make a good point. Writing is generally "fixed" by short, one-shot professional development programs or not at all. No wonder we are relying on the same formulas. Our children deserve better.
    Lisa, As I recall I learned how to manage a writing workshop from you!

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  7. Mary, I'm a third grade teacher, and I also believe writing is the most important part of the curriculum. The National Writing Project has not really caught on way out here in Seattle... we're still mired in writers workshop land, cranking out personal narratives.... ugh. But I resist, under the radar, with my blogging 3rd graders. Some seasonal creative writing here: Turkey Escape - and Spinning!

    I am working on a bikingtoschool blog... will keep you posted. Thanks - Mark

  8. I loved this post. If it's OK, I'd like to show some of it to my Literacy Methods for Secondary Educators students at Fort Lewis College, with citations of course.

    -- Suzie Null,

  9. Aileen Murphy, Director, Blue Ridge Writing ProjectNovember 21, 2011 at 9:15 PM

    Thank you, Mary. Montaigne had it right.

  10. Aileen Murphy, Director, Blue Ridge Writing ProjectNovember 21, 2011 at 9:18 PM

    Mark, check out the Puget Sound Writing Project:

    Looks like it is located near you at UW.

  11. This post makes me appreciate your class more. In all of my education, it has been rare that a teacher, even a good teacher in all other respects, has taught writing that requires any form of higher thought. You, however, were an exception, and it has benefited me immensely as I have moved on to higher education. So to any skeptical high school students reading this: the methods learned from the NWP (and implemented in Mrs. Tedrow's classroom,) are what helps one succeed in college. Intellectually creative writing not only builds real life skills, it also makes the students want to write. It is very difficult to find any joy in a cookie-cutter essay, but the exhilaration from seeing your own writing, with clarity of thought and originality, makes students want to continue to explore what they're capable of. Thank you Mrs. Tedrow, for showing me the door to the realm of grown-up writing.

  12. Loved this! Our students cannot find their writing "voice" when writing the five paragraph essay about something they do not know about. This is why I think students should write everyday (and not for a grade) whether in a journal, on a blog, etc. Thanks for sharing, Aileen.