Navigating Writing-Intensive Courses as a Student

Teaching writing as part of a course, or the primary focus of a course, is especially challenging for teachers. Managing a workshop approach and surviving the paper load are demanding elements when teaching writing and not simply assigning writing as part of the course assessment.

However, we less often acknowledge that writing-intensive courses that require students to participate in workshop environments, submit multiple drafts of major writing assignments, and navigate different expectations for student behavior and assessment are also challenging and even paralyzing for students.

Both assessment elements grounded in process and product as well as the structures of the workshop approach present students with expectations unlike traditional courses driven by tests and transmissional classroom structures (lecture, discussion).

Writing-intensive courses tend to approach assessment differently than traditional class-based one-session testing. Writing assessment includes, then, feedback on products (essays), meaning that the assessment is integral during the learning not simply something that occurs after the learning.

In writing-intensive courses, instruction and assessment are integrated, but students may also experience multiple rounds of assessment (feedback) and even multiple grades on the same product since several drafts are being submitted for teacher response and/or grades.

Along with the holistic nature of instruction and assessment, writing-intensive courses tend to require that students meet deadlines, submit work fully, and participate in the process—not just produce a product, especially in one sitting.

And that leads to the unique expectations of the workshop approach. The broad components of workshop tend to include time, ownership, and response.

For students, this means that their student behavior must include participation—such as drafting and submitting multiple drafts—over the entire course (time), must include students making their own decisions (ownership) in terms of drafting and revising their essays, and must include submitting work for multiple rounds of feedback (response) from the teacher and peers.

A course grade in writing-intensive courses is grounded in how well a student fulfills all of these dynamics, not just the singular quality of the final essays.

Ultimately, then, writing-intensive courses that require and allow students to submit multiple drafts have different expectations for student behavior throughout the course but also in terms of how that student is graded. Those different expectations (and thus different student behavior) include the following:

  • Understanding the writing process in terms of submitting work and meeting deadlines. Two aspects of this are important for students to rethink their participation in writing-intensive courses: first, essay submissions should all be good-faith attempts at the draft (not a “rough” but a first or second, etc., full submission, as if the student will not revise); second, submitting work fully and on time (meeting deadlines) is about fully engaging in the learning process, not a way to avoid having points deducted for being late.
  • Major essay assignments and multiple essay assignments as the primary evidence of learning. Since students tend to think about courses as “how do I earn X grade,” writing-intensive courses require students to rethink grades since the writing assignments tend to be the most important or the only evidence for those grades. Students must understand, then, how each draft will (or won’t) be graded, and then how a final grade will be determined for the course (portfolio assessment, for example, as a final and cumulative process versus averaging a list of grades over an entire course).
  • The role of process in learning and receiving a grade. In some courses, students are explicitly told effort (such as class participation) factor into grades, although often as a very small percentage. However, writing-intensive courses forefront effort in the form of participating as a writer: students brainstorming and drafting during class session, students peer conferencing, students conferencing with the teacher, and students submitting multiple drafts for feedback and then revising guided by that feedback. This means that course grades require this type of participation, rendering participation a minimum requirement, not optional.
  • Revising and editing instead of correcting. Submitting drafts, receiving feedback, and then revising to resubmit—this process is fundamental to writing-intensive course, but students who remain trapped in traditional ways of thinking about doing school also fail to understand the distinctions between revising/editing and correcting. Teacher feedback is both instruction and guidance for students to become their own agents of revision and editing. In other words, students should rethink and re-examine each draft fully, guided by the feedback but not simply walking through what is marked to “fix” that only.
  • Novice learner vulnerability and growing as a writer. One of the most crippling aspects of traditional grading and classroom dynamics is the deficit perspective that students enter a grading situation will 100% and must work not to lose credit or points. Oddly, this creates in students the compulsion to be perfect in the eyes of the teacher as the agent of their grade. Learning to write, however, require student vulnerability and transparency. To navigate a writing-intensive course, students must make good-faith efforts early and often throughout the course, fully realizing they are exposing their weaknesses and trusting that the process and growth will be honored over those initial struggles.
  • There is no finish line. Many students view learning as two fixed points: at the beginning is the learner who knows nothing (empty vessel) and then at the end is the finished (filled) learner. Writing, however, is not an all-or-nothing proposition since all writers and all writing can be improved by the process. This means that any time designated for learning to write is a valuable span, but it is the time frame that is fixed or set—not the status of the learner or the quality of the product (essay).

Writing-intensive courses where students are learning to write and not just being assigned essays are also demanding because many times students must rethink their behaviors, less like traditional students and more like writers. These are challenging and overlapping conditions that often inhibit students navigating these courses successfully.

A key to making the transition from traditional student to engaged student-writer includes a better understanding of participation over a long period of time. In other words, while the final product of any essay is important, in a course designed to teach a student to write (or write better), the process itself is equally important; therefore, students need to be engaged in drafting, submitting, and revising throughout the course—and not simply trying to turn in a “great” essay in one shot.

Traditional courses that are transmissional and focus on the acquisition of content (disciplinary knowledge) tend to establish for students how they best can behave in order to succeed (or survive) as students. Writing instruction may often overwhelm these students in high school and college since writing-intensive classes are seeking a complex behavior (not factual knowledge but process) as well as asking students to behave in many new ways.

Here, then, I have circled back to why writing-intensive courses are so challenging for teachers since to be effective we must address all of the challenges facing students.

 

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Student Agency, Authority, and Credibility as Writers

Each semester I teach, I become even more convinced that teaching writing is a journey, not a destination. And this semester has once again pushed me in that direction.

While it was just the second time I have taught the new upper-level writing/research course now part of our general education requirements (GER), it was in my 100-level GER course that struck me hardest, notably when a senior student sent the following message with a revised submission of the course major cited essay:

Attached is an updated copy. I don’t know if I have already said this, but thank you for being so helpful in all of these drafts! Also please let me know if it is going in the right direction or if I need to consider larger changes as opposed to these smaller edits.

This was the fifth submission of the essay, and the student has also met with me to conference about needed revisions.

What stands out here is the not-so-subtle message I have been receiving from this student and others—the “smaller edits” comment. Another student, exasperated, came very close to stating directly that I am being arbitrary and nit-picky.

My 100-level students are perfect examples of the problems associated with how a culture of grades degrades learning—and especially inhibits students from writing with agency, authority, and credibility.

Often, I am the first—and only—teacher who holds students accountable for foundational obligations related to formatting submissions and applying essential aspects of citation and scholarship.

Students have either had points deducted for formatting and citation or have simply been told they have “mistakes,” but that these are mere surface elements and thus not really important. Here, I think, is the seed of the student quoted above seeing my feedback as mostly addressing “smaller edits” even though my feedback was, in fact, substantive.

First, teaching any student to write, for me, is grounded in fostering some important foundational concepts about them as student-writers and developing scholars—how to represent themselves as purposeful writers and thinkers while establishing their authority and credibility.

Purposefulness is a difficult transition for students who have mostly been inculcated into a culture of rules about language and writing.

For example, I want students to set aside seeing their work as either correct or mistakes so that they focus on revision and editing their work—not merely correcting what I mark.

Instead of thinking “fragments are mistakes writers must avoid,” students are encouraged to think “what sentence formation am I using and what purposes do these purposeful sentence-level decisions serve in conveying meaning to my readers.” (The problem in student writing is not that fragments are “wrong,” but whether or not the student is aware of using a fragment and then if that use has effective purpose.)

Purposefulness in sentence and paragraph formation as well as choosing either to conform to conventions of grammar and mechanics or not is an essential element in establishing authority and credibility for student-writers and developing scholars.

This is key, I think, because the culture of grades creates a false dynamic in which some aspects of student performances of learning (writing) are deemed trivial and thus the holistic nature of demonstrating learning, or of expression, is corrupted for an analytic view of student behavior—the separate parts matter more than the whole while simultaneously some parts are rendered irrelevant since they simply cost the student a few points.

My approach to minimum requirements while requiring and allowing students to revise their work guided by feedback and conferencing seeks to honor the holistic nature of writers establishing their authority and credibility.

Especially in my 100-level courses and first-year writing, here is the structure I implement that helps students (ideally) move away from seeing some of their revision and editing being about “smaller edits” and toward viewing their work as a student-writer and developing scholar as a coherent whole:

  • Document formatting matters. I both teach and then require students to submit Word documents that show purposefulness and control over fonts (consistent throughout the document, including the header/footer) and font size, word processor formatting (margins, justification, hanging indents, spacing, page breaks, etc.), and file management (naming files with purpose and labeling subsequent drafts during the process). I explain to students that while these elements of submitting writing may seem “small” (and even trivial), these formatting elements establish in the reader’s (professor’s) mind an initial message about purposefulness and control—thus the student-writer’s authority and credibility.
  • Citation matters. I both teach and then require students to submit cited writing that meets basic expectations for citation format. Since I am in education, students in my courses primarily use APA so I focus on header format, title page, reference page, parenthetical citation, and subheads. These mechanical elements of citation, combined with document formatting above, are strictly addressed in the first submission, often meaning I do not accept the first or first few attempts made by students to submit work. I explain that these are all very easy to do, and failing to address these mechanical elements suggests, again, a lack of purpose, authority, and credibility. (Students are provided direct instruction in class and samples with notes along with being required or encouraged to conference with me.)
  • Sources matter. Despite detailed university guidelines about teaching first-year writing students how to search for high-quality sources, my students routinely demonstrate that they continue not to understand source quality (peer-reviewed journal articles tend to be more highly regarded in academia than books, for example; print sources, more than online; newer, more than older, etc.). Students also seem to lack the skills to search for those sources, relying on Google Scholar instead of searching through the library system that allows them to target searches. I work hard to scaffold experiences for students so that source quality and variety are addressed before they begin their writing; this still doesn’t work across the board, however. Students, for example, in the 100-level course mentioned above do a group project requiring high-quality sources, which can serve as a foundation for their individual essays. Yet, students will submit their essays without any of those sources and only online newspapers and magazines cited.
  • Using what seems “small” to foster substantive revision. When I focus on titles, subheads, and the need to synthesize sources, these tend to be elements of revision that students such as the one quoted above views as “smaller edits.” Yet, titles and subheads are about whether or not the student understands the primary and supporting focus of the essay (titles) as well as demonstrating a purposeful and compelling structure and organizational pattern (subheads) to the discussion or argument. Probably even more stressful for students is my emphasis on synthesizing sources. Typically, students paraphrase and quote extensively from one source at a time, plowing through their list of sources without regard for patterns found in the research or creating any sort of hierarchy for the importance of ideas related to their topic. Here, I am fostering disciplinary awareness by exposing them to the disciplinary differences between writing literary analysis and using MLA in high school and then transitioning to a social science course in college.
  • Openings and closings matter. Students have mechanical and not very compelling approaches to introductions (and clunky thesis sentences) and conclusions. They are drawn to making grand overstatements without offering any evidence for those claims—as The Onion brilliantly demonstrated: “For as far back as historians can go, summer vacations have been celebrated by people everywhere as a time for rest and relaxation.” And they mostly feel compelled to open with vague statements that they then repeat in a final paragraph. Therefore, I work on students creating multi-paragraph openings and closings that depend on framing (establishing something concrete, such as a narrative, in the opening that the student returns to in the end) and that introduce and then extend a focus (broader and more complex than a clunky thesis statement, allowing questions as well as allowing the essays to work toward an idea or call to action).

In 1957, Lou LaBrant wrote:

But I hope that I have hit upon enough of the important factors which go into writing to make it clear that it is not taught by considering the subject-predicate nature of modern English, the rules for punctuation, the parts of speech, or the placement of modifiers. Nor is writing taught when the formal outline with its A’s and B’s, its l’s, 2’s, and 3’s has been considered….Writing remains the final, most difficult of the language arts….Knowing about writing and its parts does not bring it about, just as owning a blueprint does not give you a house.

I have been guided by this metaphor—building a house versus the blueprint—for many years, and I have also extended that into how houses are built from the rough work leading to the finishing work.

Above, I have made a case that the rough work (“smaller edits” often to students) and the finishing work (“larger changes,” or the substance, I think, to students) are impossible to separate from each other because it is a holistic venture to craft an essay from a blank page.


Related

Shifting Disciplinary Gears as Student Writers

Helping Students Navigate Disciplinary Writing: The Quote Problem

Minus 5: How a Culture of Grades Degrades Learning

LaBrant, L. (1957). Writing is more than structureEnglish Journal, 46(5), 252–256, 293.

Thomas, P.L. (2011, September). Revisiting LaBrant’s “Writing is more than structure” (English Journal, May 1957). English Journal, 101(1), 103-104.

Thomas, P.L. (2000, January). Blueprints or houses?—Looking back at Lou LaBrant and the writing debate. English Journal, 89(3), pp. 85-89.

Thomas, P.L. (2019). Teaching writing as journey, not destination: Essays exploring what “teaching writing” means. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Teacher Protests Are Student, Worker Advocacy

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, I was a public school English teacher, and for part of that time, I was also a coach.

I taught more than 100 students each year, meaning I responded to about 4000 essays and 6000 journal entries every academic year along with thousands of other assignments and mountains of paperwork. I was responsible for preparing students for state testing, Advanced Placement testing, and the SAT.

While coaching, and during the soccer season, I would run to the gym between classes to wash and dry the soccer uniforms. Most days, I had to find time to go to the bathroom, and rarely had moments alone even during lunch.

I have never loved more deeply anything than teaching, and I so deeply loved all my students that is often overwhelming to think about no longer being a high school teacher. Facebook has provided me some connection with those students, but I miss intensely being that teacher and that coach.

When I left high school teaching for higher education, I was wearing a wrist brace because I could barely move my right hand from almost two decades of marking essays and trying my damnedest to teach young people to write well.

If you have never taught, you cannot appreciate the psychological and physical toll of being on throughout the day and in the service of dozens of young people, children and teens who depend on you. It isn’t the same as roofing or pouring concrete; it isn’t being an ER doctor or nurse. But teaching is tremendously stressful, exhausting, and often seemingly fruitless work.

And here are two facts I think you should read carefully and take seriously: Teachers are workers, and teaching conditions are learning conditions.

Following a pattern across the nation from West Virginia to Colorado and Los Angeles, including non-union states, South Carolina teachers are poised to march for their teaching conditions May 1, 2019, organized by SC for Ed.

South Carolina historically and currently represents some disturbing realities: SC is a politically and religiously conservative state (straight-block Democratic and then straight-block Republican when the parties shifted their conservative cores in the 1960s); SC is a high-poverty state with significant stratification and concentrations of poverty and affluence (resulting in the infamous Corridor of Shame identifying a stretch of high-poverty schools running diagonally along the coast); SC is a right-to-work state (the Orwellian misnomer for being non-union, thus anti-worker); SC is a high racial minority state when compared to the national percentages.

The state, in fact, is a poster child for the self-defeating South.

Once the teacher march gained momentum, with thousands of teachers poised to march and several districts closing, the governor and superintendent of education, both Republicans, have verbally slapped in the face the teaching profession and students once again, reinforcing the hard truth that Republicans in the state are anti-education, anti-teacher, anti-student, anti-worker, and anti-woman.

Nationally, teachers are significantly underpaid when compared to professions with comparable education. A recent analysis has found:

  • Average weekly wages of public school teachers (adjusted for inflation) decreased $21 from 1996 to 2018, from $1,216 to $1,195 (in 2018 dollars). In contrast, weekly wages of other college graduates rose by $323, from $1,454 to $1,777, over this period.
  • For all public-sector teachers, the relative wage penalty (controlling for education, experience, and other factors known to affect earnings) has grown substantially since the mid-1990s. The teacher weekly wage penalty was 5.3 percent in 1993, grew to 12.0 percent in 2004, and reached a record 21.4 percent in 2018.

The wage penalty for teachers in SC is -18%. And SC teacher pay is in the bottom 10 of the U.S.:

SC teacher salary rank.jpg

While salary and benefits are essential aspects of what makes any profession gain respect and thrive, teachers have called primarily for the type of teaching and learning conditions that allow them to be the best they can be for their students.

Teaching conditions include student/teacher ratios, the amount of bureaucratic obligations imposed on teachers, adequate time and space to plan and respond to student work, reasonable opportunities to eat and go to the restroom during the work day, administrative and parental support, and professional respect and autonomy.

We are approaching forty years of high-stakes accountability in education since SC committed to the accountability movement in the late 1970s and 1980s. And with No Child Left Behind in the early 2000s, the pressure and blame on teachers as failures has steadily increased, peaking under the Obama administration that doubled-down on teacher accountability and scapegoating teachers.

And, yes, the economic downturn during the bridge between George W. Bush and Obama profoundly impacted all public services and institutions. But as the report above explains, the decrease in funding, the lowering of respect for teachers, and the eroding of teaching conditions across the U.S. are not simply a reflection of a bad economy over a decade ago.

In SC and the U.S., we must finally admit that our schools are mostly reflections of our society and communities. Schools cannot alone change the gross inequities that impact our children and their families.

And we must also stop demanding that teachers be martyrs and missionaries. School teachers are mostly women, and these demands that teachers sacrifice themselves for their work while remaining passive and quiet are driven in significant part by sexism.

Teachers are great American workers. Most of us will spend our entire lives as workers.

Being a worker, especially in the service of others, is not only noble, but also worthy of the highest rewards and the greatest opportunities to excel.

Teachers are the only profession that serves all other professions.

That teachers in SC and all across the country have begun to stand up for their profession is a harbinger of our societal need to shift our allegiance away from the rich and the privileged and toward the working class, the working poor, and the poor.

If all the CEOs in the U.S. did not go to work tomorrow, how would that affect any of us?

If all the service workers in the U.S. did not go to work tomorrow, how would that affect the entire nation?

The latter would be devastating so service workers are trapped not only in hourly wages, but also slave wages linked to tips. Most workers in the U.S. cannot afford to advocate for themselves while the wealthy enjoy salaries and the freedom to work as they please and advocate for themselves when needed.

Teachers are increasingly in non-union states where they have the same sort of obligations to work regardless of conditions.

Hourly wages and non-union laws are designed to control workers and benefit the wealthy.

The U.S. has long ago abandoned the worker; the working class, middle class, and working poor have been reduced to fodder for the wealthy.

Our political leader class comes from and serves the wealthy at the expense of the rest of us.

When political leadership fails us, we have a moral obligation to organize and to demand that we matter.

In SC, the governor and superintendent of education speak for the ruling class, the wealthy, and are effectively spitting in the faces of our teachers and our students. It is unconscionable and inexcusable.

Teachers marching in Columbia, SC are advocating for students and workers.

How are our students supposed to respect and learn from professionals who refuse to take a moral stand for those students?

How can we continue to pretend our public schools are in the service of our democracy if our political leaders deny teachers and students their rights and freedoms as citizens?

It is a cynical lie to accuse teachers of selfishness and “being political” when those making those claims are the ones being selfish and political.

To call for anyone else to not be political is an act of being political—the worst kind of political that silences democracy and freedom.

SC teachers by the thousands are joining a rich tradition of free people and reinvigorating a deteriorating foundational value in the U.S.—what many used to claim was part of American being great—honoring and valuing the American worker.

We cannot emphasize this enough, then: Teaching conditions are learning conditions, and the work of the teacher must be honored because that is also honoring the right of our children to learn.


See Also

In anti-union South Carolina, May 1 teacher protest could make history, Paul Bowers

“Click, Clack, Moo”: Why the 1% Always Wins

Teaching and Learning: The Dysfunctional Celebrity Couple

I am deeply torn about the obsession with celebrities in the U.S. because seeking to be a celebrity brings with the rewards of fame a sort of 24-hour surveillance that no human deserves, or can survive.

When I see a media report on Celebrity X finally finding the love of their life, I immediately anticipate the cheating or break-up coverage to come. And then, the next story years later about Celebrity X finally finding the love of their life.

There exists in the U.S. a fundamental misunderstanding about the causal relationship between celebrity and happiness—that celebrity causes happiness.

I think teaching and learning suffer from both an over-exaggerated media and public focus as well as the same misunderstanding.

Let me share here that over the first few years of my becoming a high school English teacher I was racked with doubt about my work as a teacher because I routinely noticed that despite my teaching student often failed to demonstrate learning.

But something else bothered me as well.

Those first years in the early and mid-1980s included a common practice of issuing to students and then teaching from Warriner’s grammar text. Although I knew isolated grammar instruction was at least problematic, if not harmful (which George Hillocks showed within a decade of this experience), I tried to somehow follow the expectations of my department (use the grammar book!) and teach well my students to write.

Here’s the concern: Students were driven dutifully through, for example, “who/whom” chapters of Warriner’s, exercises and tests, from about 5th grade through 12th grade.

I watched as my students scored poorly on the “who/whom” assessments, waded through the worksheets.

Looking back, I connect this “who/whom” foolishness with my own high school adventures with “shall/will” exercises and tests.

First, “whom” is nearly dead, soon to join dear-departed “shall.” In a weird way, student ambivalence about “who/whom” will eventually be justified—just as those of us who failed to care about “shall/will” have won out.

More importantly, however, I realized in those first few years of teaching that there is in fact a very weak causal relationship between teaching and learning.

That I teach cannot guarantee learning, and students demonstrating (or not) learning often is not proof they have or haven’t been taught.

I have been brought back to this because so much of the current phonics fundamentalism I witness on social media is grounded in two deeply flawed premises.

Phonics fundamentalists are mired in anecdote. Broach the topic of reading on social media and legions will weight in with “I know a student” or “I have a child,” which leads to the second problem.

Phonics fundamentalists are trapped in weak evidence that students can’t read and then are convinced that lack of reading ability is caused by a failure of teaching.

A middle schooler reads poorly, they argue, and it is because that middle schoolers has weak decoding skills—because nobody teaches phonics anymore!

This resonates with me because as a literacy educator focusing mainly on the teaching of writing for 35 years and counting, I hear regularly the “nobody teaches grammar anymore” refrain—posed similarly by those making rash claims based on flimsy evidence.

Both phonics and grammar fundamentalism suffer as well from a serious lack of historical perspective.

Since at least 1900, roughly a beginning point of broad formal public education (although that promise was marred for about 7 more decades by all sorts of failures in assuring racial and gender equity), there has not been a moment when the media and the public was not lamenting that “kids today can’t read or write.”

When intensive phonics had its heyday: The media and public screamed students couldn’t read.

When isolated grammar was all the rage: The media and public screamed students couldn’t write correctly.

In this fourth decade of being a teacher, I am weary of fundamentalism and missionary zeal.

I have little patient for adults who have lower standards for themselves than the children and young people they claim to be serving.

I also have a heaping helping of humility.

I am a teacher.

However, teaching is no guarantee of learning.

Students failing to demonstrate learning is no proof they haven’t been taught before they entered my classroom—or while they have been in my classroom.

Teaching and learning are a dysfunctional celebrity couple.

We must stop staring and expecting them to fulfill some idealistic vision we are imposing on the universe.

And we would all be better off checking our fundamentalism and missionary zeal.

You know, kids today, they are wonderful, and to be perfectly honest, they make me happy to be alive to witness their becoming.

They can do without the worksheet, phonics and grammar rules. Maybe patience and adults who are kind and attentive.

You see, I, too, dwell in idealism, of a different kind.

 

My Journey with the Essay

I believe in coyotes and time as an abstract
Explain the change, the difference between
What you want and what you need, there’s the key

“I Believe,” R.E.M.

I am a writer.

I am a teacher—often and maybe essentially a teacher of writing.

Through no real singular decision, I have become mostly a writer of essays and a poet, and concurrently, when I teach writing, almost exclusively a teacher of essays.

In May of 2018, I submitted a manuscript of a book on teaching writing. Recently, I have been compulsively checking the publisher’s web site because that book has been listed as “in press” for several weeks now.

Today, I checked and saw “published”—somewhat symbolically, I suppose, about a nine-month journey to its born-on date.

Those intervening months mean, as I argue in this collection of essays drawn from several years of blogging about teaching writing, that today I am a different writer and teacher of writing than when that manuscript was compiled and submitted.

Writing and teaching writing as journey, not destination, remains a powerful metaphor that grounds me because both avocations spark powerful and nearly debilitating anxiety in me.

As a regular blogger, I have become more and more skeptical of and terrified by the fixity of published works, especially books.

I like hyperlinks and being my own editor and publisher (although I often fumble these roles quite badly); I feel as if the blog posts are more living documents (I can and do copyedit them whenever I find mistakes or am prompted by a kind reader). And I have some concrete recognition of readers, a readership quantified and displayed daily for me by WordPress.

Yet, to paraphrase Robert Frost, something there is that doesn’t love a book.

books

Frost’s ode to a wall, I think, captures a similar ambiguity about books, especially for those of us enamored by them and for those who spend their lives critiquing and even criticizing them.

For the past nine months, I have been wading deeply into books about teaching writing—the production of my own book of essays and then reading and reviewing two published volumes by John Warner, Why They Can’t Write and  The Writer’s Practice.

This wading and mulling, nearly constantly thinking and rethinking, however, are nothing new because I exist in a permanent state of feeling compelled to write and teach writing along with being terrified I have no idea how to write or teach writing.

At the center of my compulsions and insecurities lies the essay.

Poets Write Beautiful Essays: On “Coyote” by Chloe Garcia Roberts

Like Warner, as a writer and a teacher of writing, I struggle with how to provide students some structure and guidelines for writing, and specifically writing essays, without reducing their task to templates, prescriptions, and rules that prove often to be false.

This morning as I saw that my book is now published, I read Chloe Garcia Roberts’s “Coyote,” and searched her book title, discovering that she is a poet.

And as I teach my students, I tend to read as a writer.

The essay “Coyote” opens with narrative, immediately engaging the reader with character, plot, and setting. While the first paragraph reads nothing like the introduction/thesis often prescribed to students, it does end by focusing the reader: “But actually what was happening here when the coyote was being seen as a dog was not passing, it was shifting.”

Soon, we realizing that Roberts is exploring ideas and words, “passing,” “shifting,” among others. But this isn’t some simplistic “definition essay” that may be assigned to high school students.

This essay by a poet is a testament to the power of mode—narration, description, exposition, persuasion—and a model of craft; Roberts offers historical references and literary allusions, and she breaks the narrator/reader wall.

What becomes compelling to me, however, is her diction, this essay as tour de force of seeking not a good word, but the right word, pushing me to google some along the way: liminal, thaumatrope, oscillation, crepuscular, rife.

The voice of the essayist, the poet-as-essayist, speaks through science, through history, through literature; layers here, I think, at the core of the essay speak about being an essayist like a coyote:

The ferryman is never the hero. He is always heartless. If your family cannot pay, you cannot pass. Reviled by both sides, his only purpose, his only function, is to change people from one side to the other. In Western myths, the ferryman sometimes rows alone and sometimes is accompanied by Hermes the trickster, the guider of souls. In American mythology, Coyóte plays all the roles. He is not a note in a larger spiritual pantheon but a full revolution of unraveling and creation, of journey and return.

The essay itself is a journey, and the essayist, then, is the ferryman.

“Coyote” is beautiful, and it meets the broad characteristics I often share with students: essays start somehow, develop some focus briefly and somehow, and then ends somehow—hopefully always compelling.

Now, with my teaching writing book published, I have come yet again to something new, something that will not be in that book about the essay itself as a journey, captured with poetic shape in the last paragraph of “Coyote,” again nothing like a traditional conclusion guided by the worst writing advice ever (restate the introduction in different words):

In English, a siren song is another way to say an alluring deception, a seductive lie. But I ask you: how can a song be deceptive if it is a matter of life or death that it be sung? If our very existence depends on it being sung? And in case you cannot see it, I should inform you I am singing right now.

Roberts ends with questions and her own alluring image of essayist singing, embracing the complexities she has drawn for us and drawn us into.

I, a fellow essayist and poet on a much less successful level, am further ferried along in my journey as writer and writing teacher, awaiting my copies of a book of essays, themselves fixed but just markers in my rearview mirror as I continue on my way.


Published

Teaching Writing as Journey, Not Destination: Essays Exploring What “Teaching Writing” Means (IAP)

RECOMMENDED: John Warner’s “The Writer’s Practice”

One of the most valuable habits I have cultivated as a teacher for 35-plus years is listening to my students in the spaces before and after class time. This is a kind of professional eavesdropping not intended to pry on my students personally but to hear who they are as students when they are relaxed and speaking with each other (not under the teacher’s gaze).

Before class during the start of this semester, I saw one of my students diligently reading and then talking with other students near her. She was reading “They Say/ I Say” for her first-year writing (FYW) seminar.

When I asked her about the text and the course, a floodgate opened; she and other students in the class truly dislike the text and the course using it.

Since I teach two sections of FYW each fall, and held a small administrative role for a few years over our retooled first-year seminar program, I often ask students to talk to me about their FYW experiences. Too often, I continue to hear that our students are in seminars that put writing instruction secondary, although writing is the primary purpose of the courses.

First-year writing for many students remains drudgery, repeating the experiences they have had in high school and throughout their K-12 courses.

As a teacher of writing, first at the secondary level for 18 years before teaching college writing currently, I have fought a long and discouraging battle against template approaches to writing instruction (typified by “They Say/I Say”), the five-paragraph essay, and rubrics.

Seeking authentic practices and teaching writing as a writer have been my guiding principles, but too often, that journey has been over rocky terrain and decidedly uphill. Writing prompts, templates, and rubrics are powerful and often necessary tools for teachers of writing with little or no experiences as writers, and these artificial tools also facilitate some of the most entrenched, and worst, practices in traditional schools—grades, testing, and accountability.

Fortunately, I have discovered an important and engaging (mostly virtual) colleague in the pursuit of effective and authentic writing instruction—writer, public intellectual, and teacher John Warner.

Quickly in the wake of his excellent Why They Can’t Write (see my review here), Warner now offers The Writer’s Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

In the former volume, Warner takes solid aim at the five-paragraph essay and this work appeals primarily to teachers of writing, I think. His Practice serves more as an authoritative guide for anyone who wants to be or grow as a writer.

While I think the title offers an excellent focus for the book and how to become a writer, or better writer, “practice,” Warner’s opening framing is also extremely important: “In this book, rather than ‘assignments’ or ‘essays,’ I want us to consider what we’re doing in terms of ‘experiences.'”

This past Friday and Saturday, I attended the annual convention of the South Carolina Council of Teachers of English (SCCTE). Throughout the sessions, keynotes, and conversations among teachers, I witnessed why Warner’s newest book is so valuable.

Many who teach literacy struggle with the tension between being authoritarian and being authoritative—a foundational teaching decision emphasized in Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy.

Writing and writing instruction driven by prompts, templates, and rubrics are authoritarian, thus simultaneously inauthentic and effective for control. Writing and writing instruction driven by structure (negotiated between teachers and students) and committed to providing students with many varied opportunities to make and practice the decisions writers make are authoritative, thus authentic but prone to uncertainty and unpredictability.

The authoritative teacher must have expertise and the ability to teach on the fly, regardless of the lesson plan.

Formal schooling tends toward the former because of the perceived need for control. However, writing is a complex behavior, and teaching writing often requires a teacher who is also a writer, who can guide novice writers through practiced experiences.

Practice, then, Warner explains, offers an authoritative text:

The goal is to provide a non-prescriptive alternative to a text like They Say/I Say while still honoring the kind of critical thinking we’re supposed to value in academia. I want that thinking to be fun, and engaging, and empowering, rather than intimidating, or something performed by rote to please a disembodied authority like a teacher, or worse, a faceless, unknowable “assessor.”

As I listened and discussed with friends and others at SCCTE, I once again recognized how many of us have failed writing instruction, allowed writing workshop and student choice to flounder because these practices have been confused with class time and student assignments devolving into unstructured and unguided license.

Writing workshop and student choice, however, are not about allowing students (who have little experience or expertise as writers) to do anything they please, but about an expert teacher providing purposeful structures within which students as novices can practice, revise, and grow as writers against their rich reading lives.

And thus, Warner’s Practice, which offers excellent opportunities for writers and teachers of writing to experiment with his framing in search of the practice that works best for them.

The volumes sections—skills drills, analytical writing, research and argument, other writing experiences (including a broad range from jokes to thinking about sentences)—are ideal for K-12 and post-secondary writing instruction that is primarily aimed at all students (not just those who want to be writers) and seeks a variety of essay writing grounded in the academic disciplines (more so than writing fiction and poetry).

Finally, a real gift of this volume is the Appendix where Warner offers some possible weekly structures for using this as a text in first-year writing.

As I did with Why They Can’t Write, I highly recommend Practice, especially for those who teach writing. It is a needed and compelling argument that writing requires structure and practice, but too often is muted by prompts, templates, and rubrics that serve an authoritarian goal but not the needs of students who could be writers.


Coming Soon (Shameless Plug Edition)

Teaching Writing as Journey, Not Destination: Essays Exploring What “Teaching Writing” Means (IAP), P.L. Thomas