Reflections on teaching writing with Renee Boss

Reflections on teaching writing, and when it goes right or wrong, a collaborative effort with Renee Boss. Our collaboration was guided by Christopher Bronke of the National Blogging Collaborative.

This year my two sons (ages 12 & 14)  wrote more papers than they ever have in their young lives, and this writing consisted primarily of five-paragraph essays in each and every subject (including mathematics). It was painful for them and for me. Yet, at times we have to do things we don’t want to do, so I kept a positive attitude and persisted with helping them complete the formulaic essays (most of which also included the three points they were to discuss in their body paragraphs).

While both boys have become rather proficient with this format, the whole experience left me wondering what they would say when asked their opinion about those essays now that school’s out and they’ve moved on to playing freely and imaginatively each summer day. I decided to ask them separately and at different times, so they wouldn’t influence each other in a response. Both typical kids gave boring one-word responses at first, and then I pressed a little harder to learn what they really think.

“Hey–what did you think of all those five-paragraph essays you wrote this year?”

Son one: “Stupid.”

Son two: “Stupid.”

“Really, you had to learn something from all that writing though. Please tell me more.” Son one: Well, I did take the five-paragraph essay on stem-cells I wrote for science class and turn it into a persuasive speech and that was cool.”

The creativity required for writing and delivering his speech on a topic he cares about made all the difference. The formulaic five paragraph approach helped him develop reasons to support his claims about why we should allow more stem cell research.  But it was when the format and audience shifted that he began to care about his writing. He knew he would deliver the speech to his classmates, and he believes stem cell research improves people’s lives, so he wanted to convince his fellow classmates that they, too, should care about stem cell research.

My 14-year-old reported that he did a lot of writing this year, too. He said he wrote 2-3 times a week and at least once or twice a semester in all his core classes. His description of all that writing could also be summed up with one word: “boring.” When I asked him about the impact of all that writing, he admitted that it prepared him pretty well for the test. When I pressed him about the impact on his writing ability, he replied: “It made me worse, because it was always writing to a formula and there was no room to expand on my ideas and if I tried to diverge or experiment I was told to stop it.” Essentially, he was told that any divergence from the formula meant he would not get a “4” which would lead to various punishments such as loss of rewards or being placed in a lower-level class. I am not sure that he was actually told this cause-effect relationship or just something he construed.

Three disturbing facts came to light from this conversation. First, this idea that all this writing made him a worse writer. This goes against my experience as well as the research. We know that regular writing practice improves writing. However, none of that research (or my own experience as a writing teacher) mirrors this practice of repetitive formulaic writing. Second, and this worries me greatly as a parent and college writing instructor, was his worry that this type of writing has left him unprepared for the type of writing he will need to do in high school and college. He has learned the fine art of the bullshit essay, but not how to frame and support a good argument. Finally, there is his one-word indictment that writing is boring. I wish he had some experience like the stem cell speech, but there were only on-demand essays.

As a parent who loves words and writing and remembers the little boy who eagerly wrote poems and stories and web essays during summer writing camp, I am disappointed and angry that this focus on formulaic writing has made my son loathe writing and feel his ability is diminished. I understand why so much of his year was focused on preparing for on-demand and open response writing, but I can’t help thinking that all that time and effort could have been used so much more productively and still prepared him for the “test.” As a National Writing Project teacher and as a trained rhetorician, I am horrified at this practice. There are so many ways that teachers can give their students regular writing practice and prepare them for both standardized writing situations and the more complex writing tasks awaiting them in the future. And, I know, that there are so many ways to overcome the boredom and dislike this practice has manifested in our boys.

My students write a lot — in every class and between classes as well. I often kick classes off with some sort of prompt to help students gather their thoughts about the topic we will address that day and then use that writing to jumpstart in-class discussion and activities which will then lead into a reflective blog post (written outside of class) to connect the ideas they brought with them, that I shared, and that they heard and/or developed during the class discussion. This sort of purposeful low-stakes writing is great for supporting mindful learning and provides a solid foundation for later high-stakes assignments. By the time I give a major writing assignment my students are ready and raring to go with hundreds of words already drafted on the topic. This type of structure also gives students lots of writing practice in general — which would certainly support test preparation. Do you have any alternatives to suggest?

In addition to having students write a lot, I think it’s important for students to talk frequently. Typically, my students engage in Socratic seminar several times a semester. The critical thinking required in a seminar helps students learn to articulate ideas so others can understand their thinking which translates well to more coherent writing. Seminar also helps students learn to make logical points that support their arguments. In five-paragraph essay writing, we emphasize three main points, and often this formulaic approach translates into rote methods lacking depth of thought. By taking time to discuss their ideas before writing, students build stronger ideas and become more sophisticated in their writing. And really, isn’t moving beyond the five-paragraph essay about becoming more sophisticated?  We must believe students are capable of doing more and then show them how. Again, opportunities to talk help move students into more sophisticated writing because they learn to consider multiple perspectives. They also consider their own biases and they synthesize the ideas they hear from others into their own thinking. Taking time to ask students to write silently before and after a Socratic seminar provides them an opportunity to flesh out their thinking about what they’ve been reading and provides them an opportunity to build context needed for richer writing.

You are right. Talk, especially dialogue, is so important. I am always amazed at how ideas grow out of these conversations. The questions we raise lead to future discussions, research, and writing, and sometimes the ideas take us places we (not even I) expected or planned. That is why I like to pair the low-stakes writing of bellringers with reflective blog posts. The bellringers are intended to be conversation starters, but I believe it is important to follow-up those conversations with some reflection (which often generates a different conversation via blog comments). I think these three offer crucial preparations for learning.

An assignment that I like to use to prepare my students for more formal, high-stakes writing is something I call the Paper Trail assignment. Students develop argument topics out of our class and blog discussions, but before they can begin writing a formal argument paper they must review the texts we have discussion in class for appropriate sources and locate additional sources to support their work. The Paper Trail is a combination of the annotated bibliography with a research reflection introduction. In this introduction, students explore their research process and the primary focus of each text then explores the connections the writer found among these texts and helps the student focus their argument.

While I’ve never used The Paper Trail assignment with my students, I have used other inquiry-based culminating assignments students work toward completing throughout a series of weeks. Mostly, though, my solution for avoiding formulaic approaches rests in the idea of teaching writers through a workshop approach and through established classroom routines. My students have always enjoyed writing freely and in response to various stimuli, but we’re always writing daily, even if it’s a quick write warm-up. Wonderopolis and National Geographic provide terrific photos and videos as stimuli to get students thinking during daily quick-writes.

I think you touch on an important idea here that we should really emphasize. There isn’t one simple assignment or approach that is going to engage students and improve their writing. As part of my participation in the 2015 CLMOOC, I was thinking about systems which led me to think about the system I use to teach writing. This blog post, “A Systems Approach To Teaching,” is the result. I use a process- or workshop-based approach to teach writing with the intent to teach my students not only how to successfully complete the task at hand but to tackle future projects both in school and beyond.

As we have worked with pre-service teachers and other new and veteran teachers, we’re continuously asked about alternatives to formulaic approaches or about our favorite resources. A few favorite resources include:

Resources for discussion to enrich thinking and writing

Resources for digital writing

Resources for stimuli for daily quick-writes

What alternatives to formulaic writing practice do you employ to create writers in your classroom?

Author: Deanna Mascle
#TeachingWriting and leading #NWP site @ Morehead State (KY): Passionate about #AuthenticWriting, #DeeperLearning, #PBL, #Ungrading, and #HyperDocs.

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