Writing, Unteachable or Mistaught?

Let’s not tell them what to write.
Lou LaBrant, The Psychological Basis for Creative Writing (1936)

Kurt Vonnegut was a genre-bending writer and a Freethinker, a lonely pond fed by the twin tributaries of atheism and agnosticism. So it is a many-layered and problematic claim by Vonnegut, also a writing teacher, that writing is “unteachable,” but “something God lets you do or declines to let you do.”

This nod to the authority of God, I think, is more than a typical Vonnegut joke (the agnostic/atheist writer citing God) as it speaks to a seemingly endless debate over the five-paragraph essay, which has resurfaced on the NCTE Connected Community.

To investigate the use of the five-paragraph template as well as prompted writing as dominant practices for teaching writing in formal schooling to all children, I want to begin by exploring my own recent experience co-writing a chapter with a colleague and also couch the entire discussion in a caution raised by Johnson, Smagorinsky, Thompson, and Fry: “Just as we hope that teachers do not oversimplify issues of form, we hope that critics do not oversimplify intentions of the legions of teachers who take this approach” (p. 171).

Writers and People Who Write

My colleague Mike Svec and I are working on a chapter in a volume, and we are examining our work as teacher educators who have working-class backgrounds.

Mike is an academic who occasionally writes. I am a writer who happens to be an academic.

And therein lies a problem for our work as co-writers. Mike spends a great deal of time mulling, reading, planning, and fretting (my word) before committing anything to the virtual page.

I write as part of my brainstorming, and fill up the virtual page so I will have something to wrestle with, revise, reshape and even abandon.

Filling up virtual paper is Mike’s late stage. Filling up virtual paper is my first stage.

This experience has highlighted for me two important points:

  1. Most people (students and academics/teachers included) are not writers, but people who occasionally write (and then, that occasion is often under some compelling requirement and not the “choice” of the person writing).
  2. Especially people who occasionally write, and then most often under that compelling reason or situation, suffer from an inordinate sense of paralysis (I am going to argue further below) because they have been mistaught how to write (predominantly by template and prompt).

Since most teachers of English/ELA and any discipline in which the teacher must teach writing are themselves not writers, the default approach to writing is at least informed by if not couched in Mike’s view of writing—one that has been fostered by template and prompted writing instruction (the authoritarian nod in Vonnegut invoking God above).

And this is my big picture philosophical and pedagogical problem with depending on the five-paragraph essay as the primary way in which we teach students to write: Visual art classes that aim to teach students to paint do not use paint-by-numbers to prepare novices to be artists, and I would argue, that is because those teachers are themselves artists (not teachers who occasionally paint).

However, most teachers of writing in all disciplines are themselves not writers, but teachers who occasionally (or in the past occasionally) write (wrote).

Why Scripts, Templates, and Prompts Fail Students and Writing

In a graduate summer course for English/ELA teachers, I had the students read a commentary by Mike Royko (syndicated columnist) on flag burning. I asked them to mark the parts of the essay and underline the thesis as they read.

And these students who were also teachers dutifully did so.

Royko’s piece in most ways does not conform to the five-paragraph essay, but the teachers marked and labeled an introduction, body, and conclusion—underlining a sentence as the thesis. They immediately imposed onto the essay the script they taught their students (the script they were taught).

When we shared, they noticed differences in their labeling and marking. Most notable was the thesis: Royko’s piece is a snarky, sarcastic commentary that directly states support for flag burning laws but in fact rejects flag burning laws by sarcastic implication.

As a consequence, no direct thesis exists—although we can fairly paraphrase one.

I continue to use examples such as this with first-year students to investigate and challenge templates for essays they have been taught (for example, essays by Barbara Kingsolver) in order to work toward what Johns calls “genre awareness” instead of “genre acquisition.”

Yes, essays have openings that tend to focus the reader, but most openings are primarily concerned with grabbing and maintaining the reader’s interest. And openings are typically far more than one paragraph (essays have paragraphs of many different lengths as well, some as brief as one word or sentence).

Essays then proceed in many different ways—although guided by concepts such as cohesion and purpose.

And then, essays end some way, a way I would argue that is not “restate your introduction in different words” (the Kingsolver essay linked above frames the essay on attitudes toward children with an opening and then closing personal narrative about Spain).

Ultimately, the five-paragraph essay allows both teachers and students to avoid the messy and complicated business that is writing—many dozens of choices with purpose and intent.

Scripts, templates, and prompts do most of the work for student—leaving them almost no opportunities to experiment with the writer’s craft, whether that be in the service of history, science, or any other discipline. Without purposeful practice in the business of writing (making purposeful decisions while implementing the writer’s genre awareness against the constraints of the writing expectations), students (and even academics) are often left in some degree of paralysis when asked to perform authentically as writers.

As Zach Weiner’s comic succinctly illustrates, the five-paragraph template/script and writing prompt serve greater ease in assigning and grading writing (absolving the writing teacher of having expertise and experience as a writer, in fact), but as the student in the comic declares: “Suddenly I hate writing.”

And as Jennifer Gray details:

[M]any of [the students] checked out of the writing process and merely performed for the teacher. Their descriptions about their writing lack enthusiasm and engagement; instead, they reflect obedience and resignation. That is not the kind of writer I want in my classes; I want to see students actively engaged with their work, finding value and importance in the work.

As much as I love Vonnegut, I disagree about writing being unteachable. And his own role as mainly a writer who occasionally taught writing presents another lesson:

Nothing is known about helping real writers to write better. I have discovered almost nothing about it during the past two years. I now make to my successor at Iowa a gift of the one rule that seemed to work for me: Leave real writers alone.

Well, yes, we do know quite a great deal about teaching writing—and we have for many decades. So if “leave them alone” means do not use artificial scripts, I am all in, but certainly developing writers of all ages can be fostered directly by the teacher.

I am left to worry, then, that the main problem we have with teaching writing is that for too long, we have mistaught it as people who occasionally write, and not as writers and as teachers.

This is a herculean ask, of course, that we be writers and teachers.

But for the many who do not now consider themselves writers but must teach writing, it is the opportunity to begin the journey to being a writer with students by committing to genre awareness instead of genre acquisition.

Awareness comes from investigating the form you wish to produce (not imposing a template onto a form or genre). Investigate poetry in order to write poetry; investigate essays in order to write essays.

But set artificial and simplistic templates and scripts aside so that you and your students can see the form you wish to write.

Kingsolver’s warning about child rearing also serves us well as teachers lured by the Siren’s song of the five-paragraph essay: “Be careful what you give children, or don’t, for sooner or later you will always get it back.”

12 comments

  1. szemelman

    This whole conversation goes on as if Don Graves and Donald Murray and Lucy Calkins and Nancie Atwell and the National Writing Project, and so many of us who continue to provide support for teachers on teaching writing — as if we simply don’t exist! And it gives so little recognition to the myriad types of real writing that exist out in the world, some of which students may eventually want to be able to do. Thank goodness you do show your students ONE real-world item, namely a Mike Royko piece. Where is everything else in all this? And where is the discussion of real audiences and purposes for writing, which are what usually guide thoughtful writers, at least in the practical world (unless they are James Joyce) and make the work meaningful?

  2. Joy Lynette Stahl

    I recall moments from my own school career when I had to pad my writing to fill out the required 5 paragraphs with the required number of sentences. I doubt that doing so improved the end product. I am currently a K-12 substitute teacher and graduate student in a Reading Specialist program. Our cohort is being taught to use writing prompts, 5 paragraph structure, and graphic organizers, sparingly, if at all. As a substitute in various classrooms, various school districts, I have been asked to teach using each of those items as part of the lesson plan. Since I am a professional I do my best to implement the lesson plans even when it makes me uncomfortable. It makes me sad when the first question students ask before they begin to write is how many paragraphs are required. When the option is left to my discretion, I tell students that I don’t care how many paragraphs they write, as long as their intended audience can easily understand what they have written and they have used interesting words. I have observed students visibly relax at that pronouncement. Writing well is stressful enough without adding math to it (counting words, sentences, or paragraphs).

  3. Audrey Kalman

    This makes me want to become a high-school English teacher. I would love nothing better than to inspire in students the delicious frisson of putting words on the page in a meaningful way–though I am sure I would not be able to escape the current strictures of the educational system.

    It also explains why I have been utterly at a loss to help my 11th-grade son write an essay for his English class. As a professional writer, I do not write that way. I probably couldn’t identify a thesis sentence if my life depended on it.

  4. Pingback: Is Writing “Unteachable”? | Teaching First Year Seminars
  5. Brad Scott

    Very interesting. How do you define a “writer” and what is the purpose of the writing?

    There are people born with the need and ability to express themselves. These individuals may be called artists, or writers, should written word be their vehicle for expression. There are others who are forced to write because of circumstances, such as their occupation. What is wrong with helping the latter (people who would probably otherwise have no interest in writing) by giving them (as students) a template to make them as coherent as possible in the future?

    If you are only referring to students that possess the creative ability and desire to be “writers” in the artistic sense, templates could ultimately become a debilitating crutch. Why would you teach an artist to conform?

    The most interesting question in my opinion is whether writing can be taught. I believe those that “God lets” write can still be made better, or at least be honed and inspired, much like a painter, sculptor or musician.

    Thanks for the interesting read.

    • plthomasedd

      That was my point. Templates are NOT helping people who write (as opposed to writers). The best way to teach people who happen to write or must write is through authentic writing instruction—not templates, not scripts, not prompts. I am under no delusion that more than a rare few of my students are or will be come writers (artists).

  6. lizmurray08

    I started writing this to preface my reblogging but then I decided to share here too.
    The more I think about ‘grade level’ reading, and ‘template writing’, the more upset I get thinking about such utilitarian modes of literacy. I’m sick to the gunnels of thinking about the CC$$, and the high-stakes testing regime our children are force fed, but they play a major role in the narrowing of K-12 curriculum. The truth is though, that they are not the only reason literacy instruction is so restricted in many classrooms. As Paul L. Thomas mentions, it makes it easier for a teacher to grade a paper that follows a particular template, just as it’s easier for a computer to grade a paper based on strict criteria. The beauty of writing is that the process and product are (at least should be) unknown from the beginning. So much focus is placed on reading, at the expense of writing, and this is concerning. I love reading what children write in the early years and the process they go through to put their thoughts on paper. As with so many efforts, we learn to write by writing, and time must be dedicated to this in the classroom. In the early years there are so many wonderful picture books to share, and along with alphabetic language they show how pictures also tell a tale/recite poetry, and so on.
    [I’m heading into redundant territory so I’ll leave this here for now.]

  7. lizmurray08

    Reblogged this on La Pluma Poderosa and commented:
    The more I think about ‘grade level’ reading, and ‘template writing’, the more upset I get thinking about such utilitarian modes of literacy. I’m sick to the gunnels of thinking about the CC$$, and the high-stakes testing regime our children are force fed, but they play a major role in the narrowing of K-12 curriculum. The truth is though, that they are not the only reason literacy instruction is so restricted in many classrooms. As Paul L. Thomas mentions, it makes it easier for a teacher to grade a paper that follows a particular template, just as it’s easier for a computer to grade a paper based on strict criteria. The beauty of writing is that the process and product are (at least should be) unknown from the beginning. So much focus is placed on reading, at the expense of writing, and this is concerning. I love reading what children write in the early years and the process they go through to put their thoughts on paper. As with so many efforts, we learn to write by writing, and time must be dedicated to this in the classroom. In the early years there are so many wonderful picture books to share, and along with alphabetic language they show how pictures also tell a tale/recite poetry, and so on.
    [I’m heading into redundant territory so I’ll leave this here for now.]

  8. Pingback: What I’m reading 28 May 2015 through 9 Jun 2015 | Morgan's Log
  9. Pingback: 1-2-3-4-5: How to write an essay – Audrey Kalman

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